“Thank you .. please, all have a seat,
thank you so so very much.” With the announcement of new federal and state
funding last year, Rochester is well on its way to becoming
a photonics hub. It’s also no surprise that at Monroe Community College, there’s
been an increase in enrollment in the optics program. “Last year, 15 students
were in my class … and looking right now at 44 students.” Dr. Alexis Vogt’s classes
gear students toward a certificate or degree in optics. The program has been
around since the 1960s, a time when companies like Kodak and Xerox put
Rochester, New York’s, imaging capabilities in the global spotlight. Vogt is especially busy getting the word out about the program now that the
buzzword “photonics” has brought curiosity and new excitement to the area. Photonics
is a subset of optics; specifically, it’s the science and application of light. It
can make devices like computers, cellphones and medical instruments
faster and more energy-efficient. “We had always called it electro-optics, so
they’re synonyms, but now we are changing our names to reflect that more popular
word ‘photonics’ that we hear. MCC’s optics and photonics systems technology
program teaches students how to grind and polish glass and turn it into a lens.
They come from diverse backgrounds; some enroll right out of high school, some
work at optics companies and require additional training, and there are others
who have switched careers entirely. For John Chirinko, life after retirement
from a career in finance was short-lived. “I said, ‘OK, what do I do now?’ So I literally
retired for four days; I said this is not working for me.” After more than two
decades spent crunching numbers in the accounting department at Bausch + Lomb,
Chirinko is now counting the number of credits he’ll earn when he graduates with
an electro-optics degree in 2017. “I take six optics courses — seven optics
courses — six electronics courses, couple math courses, four liberal arts … so it
really adds up to a lot of a lot of credit hours.” Though he had a
knack for the sciences in his undergrad years, the switch to optics is no walk in
the park. “I’ve never soldered before. I’ve never,
you know, hooked up transistors on a breadboard with little teeny wires. I had to go
out and buy a magnifying glass.” Hands-on training is the key to success in optics.
The average starting salary in the field is $35,000 a year,
and the more future optical technicians know before entering the workforce, the
better their chances of getting hired. Local companies like Sydor Optics have
openings currently available. “We just don’t have qualified people to
fill those openings.” Jim Sydor looks to colleges to find summer interns and
future employees. He’s also hired people who first learned
about optics early on through a dual- enrollment program that allows high
schoolers to take classes that also count as college credits. “They’re used to
handling optical components, they know what the optics is doing, as opposed
to somebody coming off the street that has never handled a piece of glass
before or measured a piece of glass. This is highly technical. We are dealing with
tolerances of millions of an inch.” It’s that structure and attention to detail
that Chirinko enjoys — and the reason he’s not living out his earned right to be
sitting on a beach somewhere hot. “I like technology. Get the degree. Get the job. Boom. That’s it.” Vogt is going beyond her
duties at the college and doing her part to start them young. “The diffraction
grading is separating that white light into all the individual colors.” She’s working on having the next
generation fill the middle-skills gap by getting kindergarten kids interested in
science. “I come with an optics suitcase, as we call it … little hand-held
demonstrations that students can hold. they can see … They can hold something up
to the light and they see a rainbow pattern that forms when they’re using a
rainbow peephole.” And each time, Vogt hopes that this important first impression
will be a lasting one. For the Innovation Trail, I’m Sasha-Ann Simons.