African laser beam workshop organized, taught, and attended by SPIE Members

08 April 2009

A March 2009 workshop, "Introduction to Laser Beams" for African postgraduates, young scientists and optical technicians -- organized by South Africa's CSIR National Laser Centre (NLC) -- attracted the participation of several members of SPIE. Organizer Andrew Forbes, instructors Fred Dickey and Raul Hernandez, and many of the student participants from all over Africa represented the Society at a memorable week-long event. Forbes is Research Group Leader for Mathematical Optics at the NLC, as well as Senior Lecturer at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (Durban, South Africa), and Senior Member of SPIE.

Twenty-nine delegates representing 17 different institutes across 10 countries attended the short course, held in a highlands retreat in Dullstroom, South Africa. Most of the delegates were students, and the setting contributed to an atmosphere of conviviality. The CSIR-NLC Student Chapter of SPIE was well represented.

"The remote location was selected intentionally," said Forbes. "We booked out the entire lodge so that all the delegates could freely lounge around and chat between lectures. We also built in a fly-fishing team-building exercise on the first day to help build relationships from the start. Our aim was not only for people to absorb the content of the course, but hopefully also to build lasting relationships with their peers from across the continent."

Dickey (USA) and Hernandez (Mexico) were joined by Andrei Smirnov (Belarus) to present lectures on laser beam shaping, non-diffracting and vortex beams, and spatial light modulators, respectively.

Forbes said the course is meant to inform a new and influential audience. "I feel very few people understand laser beams -- how they propagate, how to tailor them to what you desire, and what can be done with them," he said. Forbes is a chair of the Laser Beam Shaping conference, held each year at SPIE Optics + Photonics, "but of course only the 'experts' gather, so in a sense it is like preaching to the converted. I felt there was a need to take this information, simplify it, and make it available to another audience -- in this case young students and researchers from across the African continent."

The course was supported financially by the African Laser Centre as part its mandate to support the training of African laser scientists. The course was warmly received by all who participated, with SPIE Fellow Dr. Fred Dickey commenting, "this sort of course probably does not exist anywhere in the world, and should become an annual event open to a wider audience worldwide."

"We are driving a national strategy to see photonics placed high on the agenda of our Department of Science and Technology" in South Africa, Forbes said. "South Africa missed the electronic revolution, so should not miss the photonic revolution."

Forbes said that since South Africa is better off in terms of infrastructure than the rest of Africa, it's important to help the rest of the continent develop. "The African researchers who spent time in my labs as part of the course were amazed at what we have and how much we do," he said. "For many of them having a fully functional photonics lab is a long way off, but still we need to work to help them achieve their aims."

Forbes hopes that efforts such as these courses can become building blocks for development of photonics across Africa. "Every small step helps to move us forward," he said. "I would describe my course as a small step, but in the right direction. To realize the potential of the African people requires political support of science. The African Laser Centre is trying to canvass for support throughout Africa, but as yet only the South African government is funding the initiative."

More information on the ALC and future course offerings is available at

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