National Hispanic/Latinx Heritage Month: Dr. Carmiña Londoño

Oct. 19, 2021
National hispanic latinx heritage month

In celebration of National Hispanic / Latinx Heritage Month, Sept. 15 - Oct. 15, we recognize Wyant College alumnae, Dr. Carmiña Londoño  (MS, 1982). Today Dr. Londoño is the Deputy Division Director of the Electrical, Communications and Cyber Systems Division at the National Science Foundation.

Please tell us who you are in less than 20 words.

“Be curious always! For knowledge will not acquire you” S. Back. I am a curious optical engineer with many unanswered questions to ponder yet. 

What and/or who influenced your academic and career choice for optics/photonics?  

The people who influenced my career choice the most were my parents who brought my sisters and me as young girls to the United States from Colombia.  They worked very hard to give us the opportunity to study, placing an enormous emphasis on getting a solid education. The three of us ended up in engineering. At a very young age, my parents instilled in us a deep love and respect for learning, the value of perseverance, and the responsibility to hone and use our talents. My upbringing together with my curious nature led me to major in physics as a way to understand the world around me. In my junior year I took a “Fundamentals of Optics” class, and I felt a real affinity for the subject matter. Optics combined physics, beauty, challenge, and my deep desire to study with reverence the natural world. After having such a great experience with my first optics class, I decided to apply to the Optical Sciences Center for graduate school. Attending OSC has proven to be one of the best decisions I made in my professional life.  

Please tell us about your career path, including your position today?

After getting my MS at the Optical Sciences Center, I worked as a lens design engineer at the AVCO Everett Research Laboratory, designing and building diffraction limited optical resonators for high-energy excimer lasers in support of the Strategic Defense Initiative. Afterwards, I joined the Polaroid Corporation working on the design and testing of optical systems for medical and large-scale consumer products.  Sponsored by Polaroid I obtained my PhD from the Electro-Optics Technology Center at Tufts University. After a ten-year tenure at Polaroid, I won an American Institute of Physics Congressional Science Fellowship and served for a year in 1994 at the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science. In this assignment, I provided scientific and technical expertise on matters related to the advancement of physics, optical engineering, higher science education, and technical standards. Then I joined the National Institute of Standards and Technology for 13 years, where I became the Group Leader of the Global Standards and Information Group which provided technical and policy support for standards and metrology to other U.S. government agencies and the private sector. 

In 2008 I joined the National Science Foundation which is an independent Federal agency with an annual budget of about $8 billion that supports research across virtually all fields of science, engineering, and education. I started at the NSF Office of International Science and Engineering having programmatic responsibility for a multidisciplinary set of scientific and engineering international collaborations. Subsequently, I served for 5 years as a Program Director with the NSF Engineering Research Centers Program having oversight responsibility for five ERCs in the energy and infrastructure technology areas. Presently, I am a member of the Senior Executive Service corps and the Deputy Division Director of the Division of Electrical, Communications and Cyber Systems (ECCS). ECCS funds fundamental engineering research in device and component technologies, power, controls, networking, communications, and the integration and networking of intelligent systems. As a member of the NSF Engineering Directorate Leadership Team; and coordinating closely with the Division Director, I provide leadership and strategic direction to the ECCS division; approve recommendations for awards and declinations; prepare budget requests and justifications for submission by NSF to the U.S. Congress; and manage an annual division budget of about $120 million with approximately 28 professional and administrative staff.

During your time at OSC as a student, what resource(s) did you most appreciate? What would you have wished to be available at that time?

I can honestly say that one of the best resources at the OSC were the other grad students and the professors. I remember fondly many of the exchanges and interactions I had with other students from my 5th floor cubicle. The more advanced students, although at that time quite intimidating to me, were also very helpful when it came to mentoring and guidance about classes, instructors and just life in Tucson. There was a spirit of comradery among the grad students which I truly appreciated. Another great resource was Prof. Jack Gaskill who went out of his way to ensure that my time at OSC was productive professionally and who helped me not falter under the demands and pressures of a very rigorous graduate program. Both Jack Gaskill and Bob Shannon (who was my thesis advisor) were very supportive academically and personally. I am eternally grateful for their genuine concern for both my well-being while at OSC and for my optical engineering career in the pursuing years.

What advice would you offer current optics students and early-career professionals?

Let me answer this question with the help of a quote from Joseph Campbell. “We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the life that is waiting for us.”  My main message is to remain flexible with professional plans. Start by getting a really solid and excellent education at the Wyant College of Optical Sciences. There is no better place on earth where a student can get a great optics/photonics degree. Then find a challenging job whether in academia, government, or the private sector. Definitely choose at least your first job to be slightly more difficult than what you think you can handle so you are challenged right from the start. Find a supervisor who has had a long and productive optics career. Establish good rapport with your supervisor and ask that person to become your mentor. Explore, learn, and ask questions so that the many fascinating aspects of optics become part of you. Be active in your professional society to establish your network of contacts so vital for shaping your career. Attend professional meetings, give technical talks, and volunteer for committees and conferences.

As you move along in your career, make your professional plans, identify your dreams and aspirations, and clarify what is important to you. Then allow your inner compass to guide you on a professional path that, over a lifetime, will have many aspects of the plans you made for yourself early in your career. However, remain flexible as life will throw you unexpected challenges. You may have to learn new skills or re-invent yourself along the way. In the long run your love for optics, combined with curiosity and your willingness to try new approaches will give you an overall professional optics career that will uplift your life and help address many of the challenges humanity faces. Perhaps this last sentence sounds a bit trite. However, I believe wholeheartedly that pursuing a career in optics does prepare you to make the world a better place.   

A special thank you to Dr. Carmiña Londoño for providing the included images as well as her perspective and experience for this article. 

Image 1: Dr. Carmiña Londoño at her NIST office.

Image 2: Dr. Bob Shannon and Dr. Carmiña Londoño at the SPIE 2018 conference.

Image 3: Dr. Carmiña Londoño running an optics camp for Outreach360 in the Dominican Republic.

Image 4: Dr. Carmiña Londoño appearing in the National Science Foundation video, "Women Making History: Carmiña Londoño"