Celebrating International Day of Women and Girls in Science

Feb. 9, 2022

The Jean M. Bennet Optica Endowed Chair Honors An Accomplished Woman Researcher

Dr. Jean M Bennett

Dr. Jean M. Bennett spent much of her life as a highly successful researcher in the field of optics and physics. Her notable career also uniquely included references to being the “first woman” within her academic and professional accomplishments.   

In 1955, she became the first woman to earn a Ph.D. in physics from Pennsylvania State University. Then in 1986, she was the first woman to be elected President of Optica (formerly the Optical Society of America). A few years later, she became the first woman to receive the society’s distinction as Fellow Emeritus Member.

Today, in celebration of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science (February 11), Dr. Bennett is now also the first woman researcher to have an endowed chair bearing her name at the UA Wyant College of Optical Sciences.

The Jean M. Bennett Optica Endowed Chair, established and funded in January, uniquely merges the vision and dedication by Optica and James C. Wyant, founding dean and professor emeritus for Wyant College, who collectively funded this chair. Their combined gifts for $500,000, along with a $1.5 million from the University's Distinguished Endowed Chair in Optical Sciences Fund established by Dr. Wyant, endows the chair at $2 million.

“Both Optica and Jim’s commitment to establish this fund enables the College to provide tomorrow’s optics students with amazing mentors and research leaders. We are especially excited that this chair honors a remarkably accomplished woman in optics,” said Thomas L. Koch, dean.

Elizabeth Rogan, CEO of Optica, said that the goal in funding this distinction was to recognize Dr. Bennett’s vast scientific contributions as well as her dedication to Optica.

“Dr. Bennett was an exceptional scientist, scholar and educator who made many contributions to the field of optics and our organization. Her impactful legacy will continue in our community through The Jean M. Bennett Optica Endowed Chair,” said Rogan.

Wyant said that he wished to honor Dr. Bennett not only for her career accomplishments, but also for the influence she had on many students who were considering an education and career in optics - including his own decision.  

“Early in my undergraduate studies, I read the story about the research of Jean and Hal Bennett. I was fascinated by their research of optical surfaces,” Wyant explained. “Despite my advisor’s belief that optics was not a promising field, their research helped to inform my decision to pursue a graduate degree in optics. How lucky I was,” he said.   

Dr. Jean Bennett began her career with the Naval Weapons Center (now the Naval Air Warfare Center) at China Lake. In 1988, she won the Naval Weapons Center L.T.E. Thompson Award for scientific achievements in optics technology. In 1993, she received a Lifetime Achievement Award of Women Scientists & Engineers from the Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division and was one of a small group of women to be named a Distinguished Fellow of the Naval Weapons Center.

Dr. Bennett also earned recognitions for her advancement of science, education, professional service, and diversity from government agencies, universities, and professional societies, including Optica and SPIE.

She authored several books, wrote more than 100 articles, and held numerous patents. Her contributions to Optica included serving as a journal editor for Applied Optics and Optics Express and holding seats on the Optica Board of Directors and many other councils and committees.

Similar to Wyant’s experience, Dr. Bennett aimed to inspire students around the globe. In fact, her teaching activities included visiting appointments with the University of Alabama and the Stockholm Institute of Optical Research in Sweden.

In 2008, her legacy as a scientist and educator was recognized when the Optica Foundation established the Jean Bennett Memorial Student Travel Grant—the Foundation’s first travel grant to be named in remembrance of a woman. And Wyant was among the founding contributors to this endowment.  

"The intellectual environment here at the college is enriching and vibrant – and having Dr. Jean Bennett and Optica’s name on an endowed chair sends a powerful message about the strong commitment of our community to recruit the outstanding faculty we need to advance our teaching and research mission into exciting new areas of optics and photonics," said Koch.

A commitment and honor that Dr. Bennett would likely approve – and especially on this celebratory time supporting an international commitment to achieve full and equal access and participation for women and girls in science.