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Optical Design & Engineering

Research and Respect

For 40 years SPIE Fellow María Yzuel has influenced Spain's optics community as professor, mentor, and advisor.

From oemagazine December 2003
30 December 2003, SPIE Newsroom. DOI: 10.1117/2.5200312.0006

Yzuel, Campos, Josep Nicolas, and Alfonso Moreno at the 2003 Spanish Optical Conference in Santander, Spain.

This profile is an extended version of the profile which appeared in the December issue of oemagazine.

"Probably María is the most respected person working in optics in Spain," says SPIE member Juan Campos, a former PhD student and current colleague of María Yzuel.

Yzuel has been teaching optics for 40 years and has influenced the science community in Spain in innumerable ways. "She is very well respected and loved by the Spanish optics and physics community," says SPIE Fellow Carmiña Londoño.

This respect for Yzuel extends beyond Spain and into the optics community around the world, as well. Mention Yzuel's name to anyone who has met her, and you are sure to hear a story of her kindness and generosity.

Education of an educator

Growing up in a small town in the Pyrenees Mountains, Yzuel found she enjoyed mathematics and physics in secondary school. "At that time, in a small town rather far from a university, it was not easy to know the contents of the different degrees," says Yzuel. "Besides, a degree in science was not considered as very adequate for a woman; and very few women studied engineering." So, she traveled to Zaragoza, Spain, finished her last year of secondary school there, and then enrolled in the physics program at the University of Zaragoza (UZ) in 1957. "It was clear for me and for my teachers that I should study a degree in science. My parents encouraged me to follow the degree I preferred."

After earning her MSc degree, Yzuel stayed at UZ and completed her PhD thesis in optics. In 1967 she received a British Council grant to be a postdoctoral visitor at the University of Reading for a year, where she was supervised by Harold H. Hopkins.

Back at the UZ in 1971, Yzuel became the first woman to obtain a permanent position as a professor of physics in Spain.

Now a professor at the Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona, Yzuel says she enjoys the combination of teaching and research that the university affords her, but what she enjoys most is supervising PhD students. In fact she has supervised or co-supervised 20 thesis students in her career. "I advise my PhD students to make stays in other laboratories and in other countries. They learn from other professors new fields of research and also they can see a different way of doing things. They can widen their points of view and establish networks."

Investigative research

"What makes me passionate about optics is the numerous applications in other sciences and engineering and the high advances produced in other sciences thanks to the advances in optics and in optical instruments," says Yzuel. Indeed, she has explored many of these applications in different fields of research through the years.

"In the seventies I worked on the quality parameters of gammagraphic and radiographic images in medical diagnosis. We applied Fourier analysis to understand the performance of the collimators in gammagraphic images in terms of image formation. These works were the first in Spain to apply optics knowledge to medicine especially for gammagraphy," she explains.

Yzuel has worked the last 15 years in image processing. "In this field I and my research group have made new approaches that introduce the color information of objects in pattern recognition. Also we have built a real-time correlator for pattern recognition working with liquid crystal panels. In this field we have obtained spatial light modulators working in only-amplitude or only-phase modulation, which can also be applied to diffractive optics."

In addition, Yzuel and her team have investigated the use of liquid crystal panels to generate apodizers with optical systems and have proposed filters to improve the resolution.

"María is a hard worker, efficient and tireless; she is the natural leader of the team and motivates everybody to keep on working in the correct direction," says Campos. "She creates a friendly relationship with all the collaborators and colleagues, so working with her is an enjoyable experience. She always tries to integrate everybody in the tasks of the team, explaining the problems and involving all the group members in the decision making."

Progress in Spanish optics

In her 40 years of research and activity in the optics community, Yzuel has seen change in the Spanish optics scene.

"The field has grown very much in [the amount of] research and in the number of professors and research groups. When I started my career in the '60s, there were people working in optics in only two universities, at the Institute of Optics, and a few government institutions. Nowadays there are more than 20 universities with a degree in physics; in all of them there is at least an optics group." And she mentions there are several other institutes in Spain focused on optics research.

However, Yzuel stresses there is still room for improvement. "The funding of research by the government in Spain is much less than in other countries in Europe. In general, promotion from the government would help if a special research program for photonics were introduced," she says. While it is a requirement in Spain that students take at least one fundamental optics course in their physics studies, Yzuel says, "An increase of the number of courses in optics/photonics in engineering degrees could help increase training in optics, as well."

Another area that has changed in Spain is the role of women in physics and optics.

"In general the climate for women in optics and physics has improved over time. Nevertheless, there still exits a glass ceiling for women in the profession," says Yzuel. According to her statistics, the number of female professors in physics in Spanish universities remained equal at about 20% from 1990 to 2001. But in that same time period, the number of women full professors in physics increased from 1.7% to 7.1%. And in optics, women constitute 11% of the professors.

"In Spain many of the female physicists work as teachers in the secondary schools. There are also a good number in hospitals; but there are few female physicists or engineers in industry," explains Yzuel.

In 2002 Yzuel attended the first Women in Physics International Conference in Paris, France, where representatives from 65 countries approved resolutions to protect and improve the situation of women in the profession and encourage more women to join the field. "Since then, in many physics societies, we have tried to organize a group of Women in Physics." As for optics, there is less group representation, however. "As far as I know, there is not any optical society in Europe which has a group of women in optics. And as far as I know the mentor program is not well-established in Europe. It does not exist in Spain."

Besides her research and teaching, Yzuel currently is or has been active with the International Commission for Optics, the Spanish Optical Society, the European Optical Society, and the Spanish Physical Society. She is also a fellow of the Optical Society of America and the Institute of Physics.

Her work with SPIE is extensive. Just this year alone she served on the Board of Directors, the Publications Committee, the Awards Committee, and the Women in Optics Core. And, of course, she has been integral to several SPIE conferences. In fact, she is a member of the steering committee for the upcoming Photonics Europe in Strasbourg, France, in April. And earlier this year she became the first person in Spain to become an SPIE Fellow.

Campos speaks for many when he says, "Everybody knows María and appreciates her; it is a privilege to work with her and to be one of her friends."