The University of Arizona to Honor Kevin P. (Rolland-)Thompson as 2015 Alumnus of the Year in Optical Sciences

Aug. 12, 2015

Honor to be bestowed at UA’S Homecoming celebration in October

TUCSON, Ariz. —  As part of its homecoming festivities, the University of Arizona (UA) will celebrate Kevin P. (Rolland-)Thompson, group director of research and development in optics at Synopsys, Inc., as the 2015 Alumnus of the Year for the College of Optical Sciences (OSC) on Oct. 23. He is receiving this recognition for his significant contributions to the field of optical sciences and engineering, particularly in optical systems development.

(Rolland-)Thompson earned his Ph.D. from OSC in 1980, where he worked with Professor Roland V. Shack on optical aberrations for optical systems without symmetry. 

“For more than 50 years at the College of Optical Sciences, our alumni have impacted the world by generating remarkable discoveries, inventions and innovations that have enabled some of the most challenging optics projects ever pursued,” said Thomas L. Koch, dean of the college. “Kevin’s accomplishments in the field of optics as well as his commitment to providing opportunities to future generations of optical scientists and engineers are nothing less than brilliant. We are proud that he is an alumnus of this College and that he is receiving this distinguished recognition from the University.” 

Koch also noted that (Rolland-)Thompson has rightfully earned a reputation in the optics industry for being a world-leading optical designer. “For many decades, Kevin has put the spotlight on emerging technologies, avidly explored industry hot topics and readily shared his vast knowledge of optics history.”   

Industry Leadership

Prior to his current role, (Rolland-)Thompson worked for six years with the optical design group at what was then Perkin-Elmer's government division. Since then he was an optical designer for 29 years at Optical Research Associates (ORA®), which was acquired by Synopsys in 2010. For the last 20 years he has led the optical design and engineering group at ORA/Synopsys.

Early in his career at ORA, he was an integral member of small working teams formed to provide state-of-the-art hardware functioning in complex, demanding, customer-defined scenarios. His first assignment in optics was to provide optical layout for Solar 1, the first large-scale central tower solar collector ever built, at Sandia National Laboratories

One of his most notable achievements was his role as the principal optical designer on the null lenses for the highly successful Hubble Space Telescope’s first servicing mission.

In 2013, (Rolland-)Thompson was awarded the A.E. Conrady Award, given annually by SPIE, an international association in optics and photonics. The criteria of this award is based on developments of new equipment, techniques and applications for designing, testing, analyzing and evaluating optical systems, components and theories.

“Few people working in the fields of optics and photonics today have had the same level of impact as Kevin,” said George Bayz, vice president and general manager of the Optical Solutions Group at Synopsys. “Even fewer have made themselves available, like Kevin has, to peers and students to share ideas and provide encouragement.” 

Pamela Shack, wife of Professor Roland V. Shack, remembers Kevin for his “thirst for knowledge.” 

“Kevin Thompson was one of my husband’s stellar students. His eagerness to pursue the unusual and important made him a perfect partner for Roland’s quest for discovery and simplification, as they explored the topic of Kevin’s Ph.D. dissertation: The Development of Nodal Aberration Theory, The Optical Aberration Field Descriptions for Optical Systems without Symmetry.

“When Kevin completed his doctorate, Roland was most enthusiastic in giving Kevin the highest possible recommendation for a position at the Perkin-Elmer Corporation, where both Roland and I had been employed before coming to Arizona,” she recalled. 

(Rolland-)Thompson holds four patents and has published 41 refereed articles. He is a Fellow of both the Optical Society (OSA) and SPIE and served as topical editor for the Journal of the Optical Society of America as well as co-Chairman of the 1998 International Optics Design Conference. 

Philanthropic Leadership

In 2013 and 2014, (Rolland-)Thompson and his wife, OSC alumna Jannick Rolland(-Thompson), Ph.D. 1980, campaigned to secure $500,000 each for three optical sciences graduate student scholarship endowments. These scholarships were named for three highly regarded professors at the college, Roland V. Shack, Harrison H. Barrett, and Jack D. Gaskill. In addition to the Rolland-Thompson gifts, donations were received from fellow alumni and College and industry colleagues. The couple then funded a fourth scholarship in honor of Professor Michel Cagnet, Jannick’s academic adviser at the Institut d'Optique Graduate School in Paris.  

James C. Wyant, founding dean for the College of Optical Sciences, matched these gifts four-to-one to successfully reach each endowment’s half-million-dollar investment mark. All four endowments are now included in the college’s Friends of Tucson Optics (FoTO) scholarship program, which provides first-year graduate students with tuition and a $20,000 stipend.

Kevin and Jannick chose to support these scholarships because of a sincere desire to encourage a new generation of optical scientists and engineers while also expressing a deep gratitude for those professors who helped mold their interests and accomplishments. 

“My interest in optics came from an attraction to astronomy. While pursuing an undergraduate degree, I took introductory and then graduate college courses in astronomy from a professor who had worked on the Manhattan Project and knew famous physicists like Gamow and Feynman and told great stories,” Kevin explained, having earned a B.S. degree from the University of Minnesota Institute of Technology in both Physics and Astrophysics as a result.

“From that experience, I decided that designing instruments for astronomers would be interesting. Then, when I learned that there were only two schools in the United States offering graduate degrees in optics. I applied to both – and went to the one with the most telescopes.” 

“I made a number of close friends during my time at the College and have stayed in touch with them for more than 35 years,” he said. 

(Rolland-)Thompson has also served on the OSC development board since 2009 and remains the principal contact for Synopsys’s membership with the College’s Industrial Affiliates program

Award Ceremony

UA homecoming will take place Oct. 22-24, 2015. (Rolland-)Thompson’s award will be presented on Friday, Oct. 23, during the UA Alumni of the Year program in the Student Union Memorial Center South Ballroom from 3 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. 


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

The University of Arizona College of Optical Sciences, founded as the Optical Sciences Center, 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 or call 520-621-6997.

Kaye Rowan
Sr. Director of Development
College of Optical Sciences
The University of Arizona