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In memoriam: Charles Vest, interferometry expert, education and equality advocate

19 December 2013

Charles VestFriends and colleagues of Charles Vest, who died 12 December at age 72, remembered him as a respected colleague and source of inspiration in the fields of holography and mechanical engineering, in addition to his articulate leadership in the sciences.

A man with many accomplishments, Vest served as MIT's 15th president from 1990 to 2004; as National Academy of Engineering president from 2007 to 2013; as a professor and administrator at University of Michigan; and as an established scientist in the field of optics and holography. He is also known for his efforts to improve careers of female scientists and his presence in Washington, D.C., promoting higher education, research, and science.

"This is a huge loss to the U.S. STEM community," said SPIE CEO Eugene Arthurs. "He was highly respected for good reason: immensely smart, extraordinarily personable, and a deep thinker with a lifetime of experience in the trenches and leadership in higher education. He was truly a delight to know."

SPIE Fellows Fernando Mendoza Santoyo and Wolfgang Osten knew Vest personally through the International Order of Holoknights, an organization that advances the fields of holography and optics by promoting cooperation, hospitality, and friendship among members and their countries.

"Vest left an enormous legacy of knowledge and wisdom, not only as an educator and scientist, but also as a person that gave himself to others," said Mendoza, director of the Centro de Investigaciones en Optica in Mexico.

Vest's 1979 book Holographic Interferometry remains a popular text in the field of holography, noted Mendoza and Osten.

"I had the fortune to learn holography from his Holographic Interferometry book and many other contributions he made to this fantastic field," said Mendoza. "I kept learning from his many recommendations and suggestions."

"His work was always a source of inspiration for me. As a student I used his book as a guide for my further steps in this fascinating field," said Osten, a professor at Universität Stuttgart in Germany.

Vest also wrote a benchmark literature review in 1981 titled "Holographic NDE: Status and future." The report is available in the SPIE Digital Library.

"His study was and is still for me a lighthouse for the alignment of my own research in optical metrology," said Osten.

Vest's deft handling of one of his presidency's greatest challenges -- a public examination of MIT's troubled history on issues relating to gender equity -- ultimately proved a high point of his tenure, reinforcing the Institute's status as a beacon of meritocracy.

In 1998, he acknowledged the serious gender-equality problems brought to him by female faculty and supported corrective measures to address them. A report detailing gender inequity at MIT, as well as and Vest's leadership on the issue, helped stimulate examination of gender equality at universities nationwide.

In 2009, Vest was the first recipient of the SPIE Chandra S. Vikram Award in Optical Metrology, for his major contributions to the mathematical analysis of holographic interferometry, for major contributions to technology as president of MIT and the National Academy of Engineering, and for his service on numerous government advisory boards, including the committee that published the report "Rising Above the Gathering Storm."

He received the award during the SPIE Optics + Photonics conference, where he delivered a keynote address on the "grand challenges" of science and engineering in the 21st century.

Vest's keynote address and a short video where he discusses the future of engineering education can be found at http://spie.org/x36540.xml.

Former MIT, NAE president Charles Vest dies (SPIE Newsroom)