We recently had the privilege of interviewing Dr. Jannick Rolland, Brian J. Thompson Professor of Optical Engineering at The Institute of Optics, University of Rochester, the Director of the NSF I/UCRC Center for Freeform Optics (CeFO), and the Director of the R.E. Hopkins Center for Optical Engineering. She is a recipient of the OSA Joseph Fraunhofer Award/Robert M. Burley Prize and David Richardson Medal. She is also a fellow of the National Academy of Inventors (NAI) and the EU Academy of Sciences (EUAS).

Q: What inspired your interest in a scientific career, and specifically, optics?

A: I first encountered my calling to create novel and enabling optical technologies while attending a theater play when I was 16.  During the play, I was fascinated by the special effects of lights and sounds. As we left the theater with my mother, I told her, “This is what I want to do, manipulate light and sound,” pointing to the top of the theater where the technical crew was operating from. From that point forward, I sought opportunities to study and work with light and sound.

Interestingly, I had a talent as a dancer and had several opportunities to become a professional dancer. I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to pursue a career in dance or the sciences, so I took a year off when I was 23.

I attended the University of Arizona as a visiting student, where I met professor Harry Barrett. I decided to pursue a Ph.D. in medical optics, after which I accepted my first job designing optical systems for augmented and virtual reality for medical visualization. The creation of new optical technologies to see what we cannot see with the naked eye and 3D visualization seemed to drive me intrinsically.

Jannick Rolland collage | Synopsys

Q: What was the impetus for creating the Center of Freeform Optics, and what is your vision for it as the director?

A: When I joined the Institute of Optics at the University of Rochester in 2009, I was already doing freeform optics research at CREOL at the University of Central Florida in designing near-eye displays for 3D visualization. Early on, I had the intuition that we needed more complex-shaped optics to design compact systems and realized that we did not know how to design these optics. Fabrication by some of the best corporations would be a story to tell on its own, where smooth specifications of a freeform mirror would be delivered as a diffraction grating (caused by what we call today mid-spatial frequencies). Metrology was non-existent for freeforms.

I saw the opportunity that freeform optics had to offer to the optical instrumentation industry, so I made the shift from researching within my group to creating a center. I also had the desire to accelerate progress and address the challenges, so I sought to build a collaborative community who’d work side-by-side. When I relocated to Rochester, the support of some of my new colleagues in the Institute and the Laboratory for Laser Energetics, as well as from Mechanical Engineering made this community possible. It was further solidified by inviting colleagues from the University of North Carolina Charlotte from Physics and Optical Science as well as Mechanical Engineering.

A key person, and a pillar to our efforts, was my partner, Dr. Kevin Thompson. He was an expert in optical system design and Director of Engineering at Optical Research Associates (now a division of Synopsys), who also received a joint faculty appointment at the Institute of Optics at the University Rochester. He worked with about 100 companies annually and understood the need to stay ahead of emerging technologies, including those for National Security. We further owe the launch of the Center for Freeform Optics to the seven founding partners: Air Force Research Lab, Ball Aerospace, OptiPro (all three continuous members from the inception of the Center), PolymerPlus, Rochester Precision Optics, Schott, and Zygo. Zygo, in fact, just returned. Several of these partners went through either an acquisition or a change in leadership. Despite these challenges, the center quickly expanded to a standing membership of about 17 members.  We lost one member in 2020 due to COVID.  We are however experiencing another phase of growth with four new members who have joined since January 2021  On the positive side of last year’s world challenge, we all realize perhaps even more deeply how important it is to build a strong community, where partnerships can flourish.

At the Center for Freeform Optics, the vision that drives us all is foreseeing that compact, affordable, and performant optical systems will permeate the future’s precision technologies. Creating a community of corporations working together on precompetitive research to advance knowledge and expertise to support this vision is part of the Center’s mission. The Air Force Research Lab’s support has also been key to advancing the technology readiness level of freeform optics. A key part of our mission as a community is to train the next generation of experts in freeform optics, who is central to the optics industry’s ecosystem and leadership. I am grateful to all those who share this vision to help us shape our collective future.

Q: What are some of the challenges that women in science face?

A: While the number of women graduating with a Ph.D. is increasing, women scientists are grossly underrepresented in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). Ultimately, this situation translates into fewer women role models. Studies on the number of women in top positions in academic institutions suggest that unintended and subconscious gender bias is common. However, time and time again we see the amazing creativity, expertise, leadership, and achievements of women in STEM. This shows that the times are slowly changing.

One issue to be aware of at all levels is that women are often judged on their accomplishments, while men are more easily judged on their potential. This makes it more challenging to succeed for women, as women often receive less support and resources early on. Many do not even attempt to go forward or they give up. Because male colleagues are already perceived as more likely to succeed based on their gender, the path will be smoother for them.

One concrete fact is that the percentage of women receiving awards is significantly lower than that for male scientists (27% versus 72%). The factors contributing to these differences include work-life issues. Women during their childbearing years are expected to show exceptional productivity to secure the next position, such as starting and succeeding in their own laboratory. This is an issue uniquely faced by women. The National Science Foundation, which has funded me over the years, including the Center for Freeform Optics, is one of the funding agencies that has made a significant difference in growing the number of women in STEM. An overall cultural change is needed, across many more funding agencies, so the opportunities to support talented women in STEM are specifically considered for the better of our future.

Dr. Aaron Bauer and graduate student Nick Tataki design a lens system in CODE V in collaboration with Professor Rolland.

Dr. Aaron Bauer and graduate student Nick Tataki design a lens system in CODE V in collaboration with Professor Rolland.  

Q: What is most satisfying about your career?

A: What I find most satisfying is working with creative people who share the goal of technology innovation. The future of innovative optical technologies in medicine remains one of my strong interests. In particular, I am interested in the development of core technologies such as freeform optics and the technology of metaform that combines metasurfaces and freeform optics in unique ways to create yet a different type of optical component. Seeing these technologies mature and entering the marketplace thanks to teamwork is happiness in my world.

I also personally value the opportunity to grow as a human being through overcoming challenges.

In addition, I find deep satisfaction in serving young people to help them get a head start in their career path. I know these generations of students will make amazing contributions to society. So, working together, we can truly scale by orders of magnitude what one person alone can achieve.

A highlight of my career was when I applied my interest in optical instrumentation and medicine to the creation of a new type of 4D microscopy, Gabor domain optical microscopy (GD-OCM). This was commercialized by LighTopTech, which I co-founded in 2013 with my first Ph.D. student at the University of Rochester, Dr. Cristina Canavesi, who was also awarded an MBA.

Q: What would be your advice for those interested in this field?

A: My advice to those entering the field is to “study hard and smart,” as you need good foundations, and leverage any opportunity to apply yourself. Also, “play hard to recharge.” Follow your intuition and path for what resonates with you and embrace the challenges along the way. Surround yourself with mentors that will support you, support others when you can generously, and develop and focus on your long-term vision so you can surf the waves. Stick to your vision, be bold, seek support when the times get tough, and march on steadily. It is worth the journey, and if you take the challenges to grow personally, you will realize how beautiful the journey really is. You will never be bored as the opportunities are abundant. Celebrate each accomplishment, even when small, and be grateful for it all.

Q: Outside of work, how do you recharge from your busy schedule?

A: Over the years, I have studied philosophy to help me navigate life’s challenges.

I have always liked to be physically active in some form or another. I used to be a gymnast and dancer in my teens, and I enjoyed skiing in the winter. Five years ago, when Kevin Thompson passed away (we married at Eastman House in Rochester, NY in 2009 – I had the most beautiful days of my life over nine years together), I focused on taking care of myself. Now I practice meditation and Iyengar Yoga at OpenSky Yoga in Rochester, NY — a fantastic community of people. In the summer, I waterski and wake surf with a group of friends. Also, various art forms, including music, and the people that create them have always hold a special place in my life.

The creative process in science and engineering and those in the arts may be less different than we think. In fact, technology and methods play key roles in many art forms. A key difference is the perceived value added to people’s lives. While art is often perceived as a luxury, in my life, art is feeding my inspiration and creativity, and both are essential in science and engineering. So, I invest significantly in the arts, I have many artist friends, and I like to surround myself with art. That is also how I recharge.

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