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Lasers & Sources

Leading the Way with Light

Néstor Gaggioli has seen the accomplishments and frustrations of optics in Latin America.

From oemagazine March 2004
29 March 2004, SPIE Newsroom. DOI: 10.1117/2.5200403.0007

Néstor Gaggioli (right) with his wife, Delia, daughter, Nayme, and son-in-law, Benno.

As the builder of the first laser in Argentina, Néstor Gaggioli holds a position of respect in South American research. Throughout his career, he has tirelessly dedicated himself to advancing research and the state of optics in South America, but it hasn't been an easy path.

Gaggioli's interest in science began in his school days, he says, when "technical problems" fascinated him. Entering Argentina's University of Buenos Aires in what he calls "the age of sputniks," he decided to study physics. His master's thesis was on the development of a He-Ne laser, beginning a lifelong fascination with optics. He constructed the first He-Ne laser in Argentina in 1964, and followed that in 1965 with the first audio and television communication system using a laser carrier. In 1970 he began working in optical metrology.

Today Gaggioli works in the Laboratory of Optics and Lasers at the Atomic Energy Agency of Argentina as a member of the National Research Council. "At present I am mostly interested in nondestructive testing by optical methods, particularly the study of the state of surfaces by light scattering," he says. "We have developed a theoretical model for studying 'changing surfaces'—for example, biological samples, paint drying, oxidation, erosion, etc." He and his colleagues also have developed a theory of light scattering by cylindrical surfaces. In 2001, group member Fernando Perez Quitian received the ICO/ICTP Award for this teamwork. The award recognizes efforts by young researchers in developing countries, and is given annually by the International Commission for Optics (ICO), and the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP).

Gaggioli is proud of his development of instruments for determination of the optical transfer function of any optical system in the early 1980s, and of the histogram of particle diameters in 1984. He also developed a method for measuring the thickness of red blood cells. And while on sabbatical at CGE Marcoussis Labs in France, he produced the first color dynamic holograms. "I love to work in optics," he says. "Therefore, I always think my achievements are important."

But while Gaggioli is proud of his individual accomplishments, he is more concerned with the challenges facing the optics industry in Latin America. A government dictatorship from 1976 to 1983 contributed to a poor economy, low wages for scientists, and minimal government funding for research, he says. All have served to inhibit the growth of engineering in general, and optics in particular, in Argentina.

Still, Gaggioli estimates that Argentina has the third-largest body of advanced degree holders working in optics among the Latin American countries, behind Brazil and Mexico. Now the number of advanced degrees is only about 250, he says. However, he emphasizes, Argentina's influence is even more important because many Argentineans work in Brazil and Mexico, having left the country for economic or political reasons.

"There are some important optical groups located in a relatively small zone in and near Buenos Aires city, and they form the most significant cluster of optical researchers in the country," says Gaggioli. "The largest institute of optics is the Optical Research Center located in La Plata, 60 km from Buenos Aires."

Argentina's current economic difficulties have origins with the last dictatorship, Gaggioli says. The problems produced by that government have affected "all human activities—in particular, the reduced budget for research, and the low wages of the researchers," he says. Much of Argentina's industry crashed between the 1970s and 1990s, and now foreign companies operating in Argentina import what they need. "All of these problems direct young people away from research careers, and many of them leave the country,"1 Gaggioli says.

Gaggioli is in a good position to observe the optics community in his home country; he is vice-chair of SPIE's Argentina chapter and a vice-president of the ICO. He hopes to be able to pool the efforts of the two organizations in Argentina. "The Argentine optical community is not big enough, so it's very important to unite people and not divide them," he says. "I have proposed including a member of the chapter as a member of the ICO Territorial Committee." He also hopes to include all chapter members in a directory put out by the ICO Territorial Committee for Argentina.

The support SPIE offers developing countries through reduced membership fees is greatly appreciated in Latin America, Gaggioli says, but in many cases it is still not affordable for those working in optics due to their low wages. He suggests additional means of support that SPIE could offer, including the organization of workshops to bring together university researchers and industry, to be held in Brazil or Mexico, where the region's important optical industries are located. The Argentina chapter has presented several workshops on various topics, and hopes to continue them.

The most important efforts in building the Latin American optics community, Gaggioli says, are international meetings, which provide the opportunity for industry and academia to get together, and for cooperative efforts to develop between countries. These events include the Ibero-American Meeting of Optics and OPTILAS, to be held jointly in Venezuela in October 2004. Also, a Latin American School of Optics is in the planning stages.

"We have no problems cooperating with our colleagues from other Latin American countries, and there are many programs of collaboration,"2 he says. "Cooperation with developed countries is more difficult."

Gaggioli is keenly interested in politics, particularly as it relates to science and technology, and is also involved in the State Workers Association, with the goal of improving the lives of his colleagues. His hobbies include carpentry and cooking. His family includes his wife, Delia, his daughter, Nayme, and his son-in-law, Benno. Nayme holds a master's degree in anthropology and is working on her PhD while living in Germany.

With his personal life, his professional life, and optics in Latin America all intertwined, Gaggioli recognizes the importance of a vital industry for the future of each individual working in science and technology and particularly for the optics community. "Each country has some isolated milestones," he says, "but the most important milestone of the Latin American optics community is its own existence and growth."


1. W. Carrington and E. Detragiache, "How Big is the Brain Drain?" IMF Working Paper 98/102 (1998).

2. N. Gaggioli, "Optics in Latin America, Spain and Portugal," ICO newsletter No. 54 (2003); www.ico-optics.org/pdfs/opticslatinamer.pdf.