University of Arizona to Honor Jack Jewell, PhD, as 2021 Alumnus of the Year in Optical Sciences

Sept. 23, 2021

Award planned for the University of Arizona’s Homecoming Festivities in November.

The University of Arizona (UA) Alumni Association has announced Dr. Jack Jewell as the 2021 Alumnus of the Year for the Wyant College of Optical Sciences. He will receive this distinguished award on Thursday, November 4 as part of the UA’s 2021 Homecoming and Alumni of the Year celebrations.

“Jack has had a remarkable career as exceptional researcher in the field of optics, particularly with his breakthrough innovations in vertical cavity surface emitting lasers” said Thomas L. Koch, Ph.D., dean of the Wyant College of Optical Sciences.

“Thanks in large part to Jack’s work, these tiny semiconductor vertical cavity surface emitting lasers, which we now call VCSELs, have become a multibillion-dollar industry. Since gigabit ethernet was standardized in 1998, for example, VCSELs have played a key role in data communications within the huge data centers that power the internet.  You’ll also find VCSELs inside your computer mouse, and now there’s billions of VCSELs being used for 3D sensing, such as the Apple iPhone’s facial recognition system.”

Jewell has held a life-long passion for science, including his early commitment at age 18 joining a group of astronomers to record an occultation of Venus near Mexico City, and then traveling to Nova Scotia to witness a solar eclipse.

A few years later, in 1977, Jewell came to the University of Arizona to study optical sciences. He worked with Professor Hyatt Gibbs from 1980 to 1984 exploring nonlinear optical resonators that could function as logic gates for all-optical computing. Jack earned both masters and doctoral degrees in this pursuit, demonstrating optical switching by creating new high-Q resonators containing semiconductor multiple- quantum-wells grown by molecular beam epitaxy.

After graduation, Jewell worked at Bell Laboratories for seven years where he extended his prior work using similar structures to create the world’s first practical semiconductor VCSELs.

He led a Bell Labs / Bellcore collaboration (including Axel Scherer, Sam McCall, Yong Hee Lee and James Harbison) that in 1989 demonstrated over 1 million VCSELs as small as 1.5 micron in diameter on a prototype semiconductor chip. These first all-semiconductor VCSELs introduced other design features that are still used in all commercial VCSELs today. This demonstration marked a turning point in the development of the surface-emitting laser, and many important innovations were soon being reported from all over the world.

In 1991, Jewell left Bell Labs to co-found Photonics Research Inc., the first company committed to commercializing VCSELs. In 1995, Jack also founded Picolight Inc. Though small, both companies were leaders in VCSEL innovation and standards development.

Over the course of his career, he has amassed 74 patents and over 150 publications. In addition to promotion to Distinguished Member of Technical Staff at Bell Labs, Jack received the Distinguished Inventor Award in 1991, was an IEEE LEOS Distinguished Lecturer, was awarded the Best Technical Advance in Optical Communications in 2001, received the Aron Kressel Award from IEEE Photonics Society in 2009, and is the 2021 recipient of the prestigious IEEE Photonics Award.

Since 2008, Jack has been an independent consultant, continuing his contributions in the field while pursuing his personal interests in photography, extreme sports like 100-mile mountain footraces, and supporting NASA on occultation expeditions.

In addition to Jewell’s pioneering discoveries, he has also demonstrated an extraordinary generosity by funding opportunities at Wyant College that support faculty and students – and their research. This includes a principal gift made in 2007 by Jack Jewell and Tatiana Jewell to launch a campaign for the Roland V. Shack Graduate Student Scholarship in Optical Sciences. Having received additional donations from family, former students and colleagues of Dr. Shack, this scholarship endowment now holds a balance exceeding $500,000.

Ten years later, Jack offered a $100,000 donation to establish the Jack Jewell Endowed Research Award for Extreme Optics. An annual award from this endowment is given to a Ph.D. student whose work best illustrates a passion for exceeding perceived “limitations” of optical technology in any subfield.

Then, in February 2020, the College announced another $500,000 gift made by Jack to establish the $2M Jack Lee Jewell Endowed Chair in Optical Sciences as part of the James C. Wyant endowed chair matching program. This endowed chair enhances the College’s ability to recruit faculty members who will make transformational discoveries, ignite new fields, and teach our students to lead.

Globally known for its foremost teaching and research programs, the Wyant College of Optical Sciences’ reputation is a testament to the brilliance and dedication of our students, alumni and faculty who have pioneered scientific discoveries and technological breakthroughs, introducing remarkable new ways that optics will affect the quality of our lives.

“Jack Jewell exemplifies these attributes from his professional dedication to the research and advancement of critical, high-impact applications of optical sciences,” said Koch.

“In addition, his commitment to generously support opportunities for students through scholarships and research awards, and most recently his endowed chair gift for faculty, makes him a superb honoree as our Alumnus of the Year. Investing in our students and faculty, as Jack has done, will continue to provide rich, lasting dividends —to the College, the University, and to society.”

About the University of Arizona James C. Wyant College of Optical Sciences: 

The University of Arizona James C. Wyant College of Optical Sciences (OSC) has been shaping the future since 1964 by offering high-quality instruction, cutting-edge research and a solid commitment to the development of the optics industry. OSC remains dedicated to providing the state of Arizona and the nation with an internationally pre-eminent program in all aspects of the study of light. For more information, please visit

Kaye Rowan, Executive Director of Development