Today, more than ever, we need to find ways to replace fossil fuels with something better, cleaner, and that is literally everywhere – light. While the study of photonics has been around for some time, photonics as a discipline is a relatively new in the world of engineering. Often, it is grouped with programs like physics or optics, and therefore it can be difficult to find information pertaining to it. I first became interested in the field after a recruiter from the University of Central Florida came to one of my classes and did a presentation on their program.
He informed us that although many of the engineering disciplines have job openings, security, and good salaries, photonics was the future. It is being implemented into everyday life and technologies, and that since it is relatively new, the demand for photonics engineers will only increase.
The use of fossil fuels has become an ever-increasing detriment to the environment. Photonics engineers seek to harness and apply the power of light to a broad spectrum of technologies, like fiber-optics, lasers, or power generation.
There are two branches which are of interest to me; the first is photovoltaics, which is the study and application of harnessing solar energy and converting it to usable power (Wenham et. al, 1). Unlike solar panels, whose power is used to heat water, photovoltaic panels convert solar power directly to energy which can be used for different purposes (Ryan). A simple example is the solar cells on those dancing flowers that some people put in their cars – a small application that can be translated to many other uses.
The second branch, lasers, has potential applications in a variety of settings such as the medical field, mining, welding, cutting, or drilling. Some of the most well-known applications of lasers in the medical field are in LASIK technologies, which are used for corrective eye surgery (Salem, 355). In other fields, lasers can be used to destroy objects, or measure distance. The applications are endless!
According to Salem Press, to become a photonics engineer, regardless of specialization, one must attend a four-year institution within a relative discipline, such as physics, electrical engineering, or a photonics specific major (355). There are few schools in the country that offer photonics as an independent discipline. The University of Central Florida and its Center for Research and Education in Optics and Lasers (otherwise known as CREOL), offers bachelors, masters, and doctorate degrees in photonics and optics. After completing a degree, graduates will usually find a lab to work in and gain experience within their specific interest (Salem, 356). The salary of a photonics engineer depends on the experience and company of employment, but it can range between $76,000 to $132,000 per year (Glassdoor).
The job market is especially fertile in Florida’s Tech Corridor because of UCF’s CREOL program. “With more than 98 companies employing more than 2,000 people directly engaged in optics and photonics, the Florida High Tech Corridor is a bustling area of activity in this growing industry,” (Hightech). The demand is high, but astonishingly, despite the demand in the area, this year there are only 257 CREOL enrollees, compared to the 11,875 enrolled in other engineering and computer science disciplines (UCF). I like to think that this opens up better opportunities for photonics graduates, since it means less competition for jobs.
Like with many male dominated fields, there is a problem with gender inequality with pay and career advancement. This, and the under-representation of minorities, is something that I hope to challenge and address during my career. According to photonics engineer Katie Schwertz, many women are not engaging in the conversation about gender inequality in the field of photonics because they are just glad to be doing a job they love. However, this can be detrimental in the long run for women in the industry and across STEM careers (28). Many of the young women and minorities that I come across, feel insecure about pursuing their careers in STEM because they have had negative experiences or financial insecurities about funding their careers. Women and minorities need to know that jobs in STEM are for everyone, and I hope to change the narrative on that matter through out my career.
My hope is that within ten years I will have my doctorate degree in photonics from UCF and be an Imagineer for the Walt Disney Company. I want to attend conferences, schools, or programs, and speak to other young women and minorities and let them know that careers in STEM are rewarding and fulfilling. I would also like to be implementing new technologies that reduce our dependence on fossil fuels that are cheap and accessible to not just corporations, but people with moderate or low incomes. I feel that sometimes engineers forget that the technologies and solutions they create need to get into the hands of everyone, otherwise they offer minimal impact. If I cannot achieve my dream of becoming a photonics engineer, my fallback is in robotics – my second passion. Ideally, I would double major in both photonics and robotics and invent things that draw from both disciplines.
I believe that a career in photovoltaics would not only be lucrative but also fulfilling. I would be able to help the environment, and hopefully society as well. I also believe that participating in other activities and internships will help me garner experience and help me get the funding I need to get all the way through to my doctorate and my dream of becoming an Imagineer. I have the next few years of my academic life planned out and have contingency plans in case things do not go as planned. However, I firmly believe that this “dream” will become a reality soon.