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SPIE Professional July 2008

M.J. Soileau, SPIE Gold Medal Recipient

M.J. Soileau is the 2008 Gold Medal of the Society recipient for his outstanding contributions to laser-induced damage research and optics education. He has also been instrumental in photonics commercialization, technology transfer, and other industry initiatives.

By Erin M. Schadt

M.J. Soileau 2008 SPIE Gold Medal Winner

M.J. Soileau has led an interesting career of juxtaposition. Focusing much of his research on the damage a laser can inflict, his career has been one of establishing institutions, strengthening education, and creating collaborations.

Now his good work has been recognized with the highest honor that SPIE bestows: the Gold Medal of the Society. The Gold Medal recognizes his "extraordinary dedication and service to optics education, research, and administration, as well as his exceptional contributions in the areas of laser-induced damage to optical materials and nonlinear optical materials and concepts for sensor protecting devices."

Soileau will give a talk on his career in optics and on how optics is an engine for wealth creation in knowledge-based industries at the Annual Awards Banquet at the SPIE Optics+Photonics Symposium in San Diego, CA, 13 August.

Soileau's wide breadth of accomplishment began on one U.S. coast—at the Naval Weapons Center in China Lake, CA—continued through the University of North Texas (Denton, TX) where he was chair of the Center for Applied Quantum Electronics, and on to the University of Central Florida (UCF) in Orlando.

Soileau, a past president of SPIE, became the founding director of the Center for Research and Education in Optics and Lasers (CREOL) at UCF in 1987. He is now the vice president for research and commercialization and a professor of optics, physics, and electrical and computer engineering. CREOL was created by governor's order to develop sustainable non-agricultural, non-tourist-based industry in Florida.

Soileau moved himself, several colleagues and students, along with a slew of optical equipment to a center so fledgling that it was initially housed in a double-wide trailer. Through this daunting challenge, Soileau saw the promise of the university.

"What I saw in CREOL was the potential to create the country's third major university organization in optics and lasers," Soileau says. "This in turn would give us a shot at competing with the best universities for students interested in optics."

With Soileau heading the endeavor, the UCF optics program steadily grew over the years into one of the top programs in the country. It became the School of Optics and later, under the leadership of Eric Van Stryland who followed Soileau as director of the School of Optics, earned the designation of College of Optics and Photonics. (The university grew as well, now ranked as the nation's sixth largest university, with 50,000 students expected to enroll this fall.)

Industry Partnerships

CREOL was founded to work in concert with local industry, and Soileau has taken this initiative seriously.

"We impact industry by first educating students who are prepared to compete in the global marketplace," Soileau explains. "Second, we do joint research with companies, thus greatly extending their research capacity. In fact, we ask industry to view us as 'their corporate research labs.' This is particularly important for the new startups and small businesses in our region. However, we also partner with the big guys to go after major federal projects. And third, we spin out new companies."

image of the SPIE GOLD MedalSoileau also helped local industry organize the Florida Photonics Cluster and has worked with a number of other stakeholders to establish a "2+2" program with local community colleges to train optics technicians in a four-year degree program.

"The project that started it all was a semiconductor fab in Orlando jointly owned by Lucent," Soileau says. "In order to attract students to the technician program, offered by regional community colleges, we constructed the curriculum so that the students could leave for work after the associate's degree, but could also matriculate at the university to obtain a BS in Engineering Technology without lost time."

Research and Service

All the while, Soileau has been an active professor and researcher. He is recognized internationally for his contributions in the area of laser-induced damage in optical materials and associated nonlinear optics, such as self-focusing. Because of his work in these areas—as well as his strides in education—he has been made a Fellow of SPIE, IEEE, OSA, AAAS, and is a senior member of the Laser Institute of America.

His involvement with SPIE in particular has been immense. Soileau has served in many leadership positions with the Society and as chair or co-chair of a number of SPIE conferences. Notably, Soileau is a longtime co-chair and co-organizer of the SPIE Boulder Damage Symposium (CO).

During his term as SPIE president in 1997, he became co-chair of a task force to explore a possible merger between OSA and SPIE. After two years—and an enormous amount of work and debate—the proposed merger was narrowly defeated. Soileau says being a part of this pivotal moment in SPIE history is one of his best memories with SPIE.

Soileau considers his role in establishing CREOL as a respected research and graduate education program as his greatest accomplishment. "However, I am mindful of the help of legions in doing this," he says, "among them my own family and my friend and colleague, Eric Van Stryland, founding dean of the College of Optics and Photonics. It is a rare privilege to be part of building a university. Such institutions are second only to religions in their longevity on the world stage."

New at CREOL
  • Bahaa Saleh will become the new dean of CREOL, the College of Optics and Photonics, in January.
  • A major partnership with the Department of Computer Science, the College of Medicine, the NanoScience and Technology Center and others will advance biomedical imaging research.
  • Townes Laser Institute is developing a renewed thrust in lasers of substantial power for medicine, machining, defense, etc.
  • A new addition to the CREOL building has provisions for incubating companies on site.

Erin M. Schadt

Erin M. Schadt is a freelance writer based in Seattle, WA. 

DOI: 10.1117/2.4200807.10

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