The Wyant College Women in Research

Each year, February and March offers international observations that honor women for their vast contributions to science and society with the International Day for Women and Girls in Science; Women’s History Month and the International Women’s Day. To celebrate these important observations, we will connect with women faculty and alumnae who have taken hold of their passion for optical sciences and are living out their dreams—and then, bring you their stories every February and March with the Wyant College Women in Research.

Women in Research - Faculty

Describe your research contributions or interests. 

My lab focuses on inventing new fluorescence microscopy techniques and developing advanced imaging instruments for investigating biological systems. We have established a track record in developing innovative approaches and optical tools to study fast biological processes, including the ability to conceive innovative imaging techniques, build prototype instruments, develop image acquisition software, and apply these techniques to collaborative biological studies. Our work has made high impacts in several imaging technology development areas: high-resolution fluorescence imaging in deep tissue, multiplexed imaging in cells and tissue, and superresolution microscopy. We form close collaborations with bioscience research groups in neuroscience, system biology, developmental biology, and genetics etc. In addition to imaging technique development, we are intimately involved in experimental design, image data analysis, data interpretation, and image result rendering in collaboration with biologists.

Who was your most significant role model in science or in your career?

The most significant role model in my scientific career is my Ph.D. advisor Dr. David D. Nolte. He showed me how to drive research with curiosity, and how to enjoy the journey even when it is filled with failures and frustrations.

What piece of advice would you like to pass on?

The advice I want to pass on to women who are interested in a research career is: Challenges, not results, is what makes research fun. The process of overcoming challenges with clever ideas and diligent work is what makes a researcher grow. Results can be frustrating sometimes, but you always learn something in the fight with challenges.

 

Women in Research - Alumna

Describe your research contributions or interests. 

My dream growing up was to be an astronomer, sitting on a mountain top with ‘my’ telescopes.  Turned out astronomer’s instruments, i.e., telescopes, became my passion and by extension optical design. During my 35-years at the Air Force Research Lab (AFRL) I have worked and filled many roles. I started out as a FORTRAN programmer developing computer code in the area of imaging techniques applied to high resolution images of space objects.

I gained an opportunity to attend graduate school at the UA Optical Science Center via an AFRL program and received my MS in 1993. The next 19 years of my career at AFRL, I worked as an Optical Engineer at the Starfire Optical Range, a large telescope facility known for world class research in adaptive optics. This included work in optical design and research in various aspects of adaptive optics technology including multi-conjugate multi beacon adaptive optics and optical communications.

While working, I completed my Ph.D. in absentia from UA in 2003. In the latter part of my career, I worked on facilitating collaborations between AFRL scientists and engineers and industry and academia, eventually becoming a supervisor, and recently named Chief for the Laser Division. I now lead a team conducting research in advanced laser technologies, including multiple laser source research (fiber, solid state, and semi-conductor), laser effects, atmospheric turbulence/aero-effects mitigation, and laser system demonstrations.

Who was your most significant role model in science or in your career?

I have had 2 significant role models in my career, Dr. Janet Fender and Dr. Robert Fugate.  

Dr. Fender was the first Ph.D. female scientist I met, who taught me what it meant to take care of her employees. Not only did she encourage and open up opportunities, but also when I was going through a rough period in my life, she took me in. She guided me through the government process which paid my way to graduate school.  

Dr. Fugate fulfilled my life-long dream of working on a mountain top with ‘my’ telescopes, providing a path for me to complete my dissertation in absentia and impressed upon me leadership skills I use to this day.  He saw the gifts and talents in people putting them in appropriate positions, allowing them to excel, but be accountable. I learned the importance of working in a team, how each person is an important piece of the puzzle, that you cannot achieve a major project on your own.

What piece of advice would you like to pass on?

Follow your dreams, persevere, collaborate, and seek out good mentors/leaders along the way to observe, follow, and learn from.

 

Past Faculty Features

Describe your research contributions or interests. 

My Little Sensor Lab currently focuses on the creation and use of ultra-sensitive optical sensors for fundamental science, translational medicine, and environmental monitoring. We work on both improving the sensor technology (e.g., enhancing our sensors with plasmonics and incorporating frequency comb spectroscopy) as well as applying the technology to societally important problems such as Alzheimer's disease, cancer, infectious disease, chemical threat sensing, and doping in athletics. The research group currently consists of 8 Ph.D. students. I serve as the PI for an NIH R35 MIRA grant as well as PI for a Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) grant. I’m also the PI of a grant with Cargill on taste receptors. In addition, I am the PI of two Scialog Fellows Chemical Machinery of the Cell Research Collaboration grants, one of which just ended. Previously, I have been the PI of an NSF project on developing a new molecular spectroscopy system as well as a Partnership for Clean Competition Grant on trace detection of doping agents in urine. I have also been the PI of an NIH R21 and R03 grant on encapsulating our sensors with G-protein coupled receptors for small molecule detection as well as trace detection of Alzheimer’s biomarkers.

Who was your most significant role model in science or in your career?

I have had many role models growing up. I was inspired to pursue science by my father who is a mechanical engineering professor. As just one example of how he inspired me, when I was in second grade, we were told to make a solar cooker by wrapping a paper plate in aluminum foil. My dad asked me what I was doing. When I explained to him the assignment, he showed me how to use a parabola to focus light. He showed me how to plot a parabolic function on paper and cut many of them out to make a large supporting structure which we covered with aluminum foil. The final solar cooker was immense. I could not get my arms around it. It was the only solar cooker in the class that worked, and I cooked hot dogs for the entire class the next day.

As I grew up, my father also introduced me to many role models. Just to name a few: Gauss, for his maxim with respect to publications: “pauca sed matura” (“few but ripe”), Faraday for his pioneering spirit in discovering new phenomena through experiments, and Confucius for his teaching philosophy: “educate students of all diversity; teach according to their preparation.”

My most recent significant role model nowadays is William A. Goddard III of Caltech. I first knew him as my brother’s Ph.D. advisor and a prominent scientist who is one of the most highly cited living chemists. We talked about science and life during my brother’s wedding a few years ago. His research has been “to describe the properties of chemical, biological, and materials systems directly from first principles (without the necessity of empirical data)”. My sensor work complements his research. We meet twice a week and work together on a variety of projects such as pain control, drug discovery, and understanding how taste and olfaction work. I’ve never met anybody with his work ethic and his optimism. In a recent celebration of serving 50 years as a faculty at Caltech, he commented on planning for 15-20 more years. I hope to be able to stand on the shoulders of such giants for as long as possible.

What piece of advice would you like to pass on?

“Only worry about things under your control” is probably the most useful advice I rely on nowadays. This advice allows me to focus on real issues in order to make a difference.

 

Describe your research contributions or interests. 

My research projects are in optical engineering and imaging science with a focus on polarization physics. A guiding principle of my training is that every aspect of the imaging chain from the physics and statistics of the data acquisition to the analysis and display of the resulting image data should be accounted for and quantitatively analyzed. Scientific images are acquired for specific purposes; examples include the detection and characterization of abnormalities in medical imaging, estimating aerosol and cloud properties to model the Earth’s radiation budget in remote sensing, and shape or material classification in computer vision. When the ability of an imaging system to perform the science task is mathematically specified, the entire imaging chain can be subject to characterization and optimization with respect to this task performance. At first inspection this optimization problem is extremely high-dimensional, the forward modeling can be daunting, and the inverse problem is ill-posed. Formulating tractable task-performance optimizations to design efficient imaging systems and data-acquisition protocols are the foundation of my research. Polarization plays an important role because task performance can often be substantially improved when polarization effects are exploited, and polarization-sensitive measurements are utilized.

Who was your most significant role model in science or in your career?

My transition from a PhD student to a professional was a challenging time. Graduating in the recession of 2008 and staying at the same academic institution as my husband didn’t make that transition any easier. Luckily, I met Dr. Arlene Maclin and was immediately inspired by both her professional accomplishments and her passion for diversity and inclusion. Her investment in my success gave me the motivation and resources I needed to take initiatives towards becoming an independent researcher. I’ve never meet anyone that radiates as much joy in their life and work as Dr. Maclin. My scientific career and personal success as a working parent to three young children has been possible thanks to many talented teachers, role models, and supporters. I count Dr. Maclin as my most influential because there is a source of strength and excellence within me that comes from emulating her. My goal is to serve students with an integrity, generosity, and sense of social purpose that she demonstrated for me.

What piece of advice would you like to pass on?

I am a big fan of one-liners! Here are some that I repeat often:
“Don’t trust a graph without error bars”,
“Never be afraid that you won’t have another good idea”,
“The most important decision you will ever make is who you marry”

 

Describe your research contributions or interests. 

My research at the Wyant College of Optical Sciences mainly focuses on developing optical technologies for 3D displays, especially head-worn display technologies for virtual and augmented reality (VR/AR) applications, and microscopic and endoscopic imaging technologies for medicine. In the area of wearable display technologies, my group has been working on a wide range of the cutting-edge optical technologies to address some of the most challenging problems in VR/AR displays such as minimizing visual fatigue induced by vergence-accommodation conflicts and accurately rendering mutual occlusion cues between virtual and physical objects.

Besides these enabling optical technologies, we have also been developing wearable display technologies for a wide range of applications from defense industry to assistive technology for users with disabilities; and scientifically investigate the potentially negative impacts of the state-of-art 3D display technologies on visual perception, visual comfort, and even long-term vision health of users. One example of the wearable display technologies we developed is the eSight 3 product, an advanced assistive eyewear technology enabling people with central vision loss or poor vision in general to be able to see better their surroundings, improve their mobility, and live more independently. Closely collaborating with the team from eSight, a Canadian based startup company, my group led the development of a unique freeform eyepiece optics from concept design, optics optimization and prototype, to optics molding support for volume production. In the area of biomedical imaging, we have been developing novel endoscopy and microscopy technologies for minimally invasive surgery. We collaborate with surgeons to develop endoscopes that provide novel imaging capabilities to address some of the critical issues with the state-of-the art laparoscopic technologies such as lack of spatial awareness, safety, efficiency, and 3D imaging.

Who was your most significant role model in science or in your career?

Many people made significant impacts in my career development. Among those, Dr. Yongtian Wang, my Ph.D. advisor, was truly my role model and mentor. Prof. Wang’s genuine inspiration and curiosity deeply planted the seeds of innovation inside me, and his rigorous scholarship as well as his patience and kind support to his students have become the example I have been trying to follow in my academic career.

What piece of advice would you like to pass on?

Being rigorous in scholarship and being perseverant in research are what I learned from my mentor and are what I would like to pass to my students.

Other life wisdom:

I grew up in a relatively poor family and lost my dad when I was still very young, but my mom as a middle-school math teacher believed in the power of education. She worked very hard to support me for the best education I could possibly get while she alone endured the financial suffering and hardness. I became the first generation in the family to enter college, graduate with a PhD, and become a professor. Therefore, I am determined to use the education gifted to me by my mom to light up the future of others, and so can you!

 

Past Alumna Features

Describe your research contributions or interests. 

I use my knowledge of optical sciences, engineering, and infrared technology to solve problems for the benefit of humanity. As a grad student at the University of Arizona, I introduced a remote, non-contact temperature-measurement technique. I developed the theory in support of it, prepared the simulations, and designed several experiments to demonstrate its feasibility. This technique has been routinely used for temperature screening of people during the covid-19 pandemic before entering public buildings and vehicles. At the Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, I introduced new mathematical algorithms to identify the smallest non-repeating vector located in a measured stellar field, insensitive to errors. On its basis I developed an optical navigation technique that took the Cassini mission successfully to the outer planets in our solar system.

I am probably best known as a planet hunter. I proposed, and demonstrated in a laboratory experiment, a new, original technique for discovering planets outside our solar system. All the other instruments used today to discover the planets are statistical in nature and use instruments that humanity have been using for at least one century. Telescopes, cameras, spectrometers (used by recipients of the Nobel prize), and radiometers are already highly developed instruments, where we nowadays incorporate ever more sophisticated components. My novel instrument, a rotational shearing interferometer, has the advantage of being able to connect the signal causally to the presence of a planet.

Who was your most significant role model in science or in your career?

I was a dedicated reader. I read many life stories of great discoverers. In the seventh grade I read a book about the atom. Afterwards, I read a book about the electromagnetic theory, that is light. I cannot really say that I ever had a role model, only love and interest of science.

What piece of advice would you like to pass on?

Follow what really interests you because you will be happy doing what you enjoy. Also, seek advice from experienced people, but only to the degree that they offer their different points of view.

 

Describe your research contributions or interests. 

I am an Optical Engineer at Ball Aerospace where I help design, build and test optical systems for space-based applications spanning nascent research and development efforts to decades-long flight programs. My background in optical alignment and metrology led to roles on the Operational Land Imager 2 (OLI-2) instrument for the Landsat 9 mission, where I supported the fabrication, alignment and performance testing of 4 mirror telescope, and the James Webb Space Telescope, where I am a member of the ground testing and on-orbit commissioning team as a Wavefront Scientist. 

In addition to executing flight programs, I serve as the Technology Initiative Lead for Astrophysics. In this role, I work closely with our business development team to identify opportunities to develop approaches and technologies that will enable future Astrophysics missions at a variety of scales. One particularly exciting program I’m leading - called “ULTRA” –supports direct imaging of potentially habitable exoplanets with a high contrast coronagraph. Achieving the necessary 10-billion-to-one contrast to observe a rocky planet next to its host star requires optical wavefront stability on the order of picometers – which requires a telescope with stability orders of magnitude beyond the state of the art.  I’m leading a team of industry and academic partners to develop new technologies to realize that level of stability, including Ball-developed edge sensors and actuators that can control the rigid body motions of a segmented primary mirror at the picometer level.

Who was your most significant role model in science or in your career?

My primary role models have always been those closest to me.  It began with my Mom and Dad, who always ensured my elementary and middle school science fair projects were physics-themed and actually followed the scientific method.  They asked what I thought would happen to the period of pendulum when I increased the weight, took me to Home Depot to buy washers and string, and watched me convert the frame of a My Little Pony tent into a pendulum experiment station – and lo and behold, I discovered that the period doesn’t change! I’ve also had several outstanding mentors in graduate school, notably Jim Burge and Matt Dubin, and at my current employer, Ball Aerospace, who have inspired my career trajectory.  One of the things I’ve admired most in these mentors, in addition to their extensive technical knowledge, is their ability to understand the big picture and ask the right question.  Engineers often don’t know the right answer right off the bat (or it wouldn’t be a very interesting profession!), but if you can ask a key question and figure out what matters, you are well on your way to solving hard problems.

What piece of advice would you like to pass on?

Reach outside your comfort zone. In your career, there will likely be times when you are asked to take on an assignment that stretches beyond your capabilities (and if you aren’t getting those opportunities – seek them out proactively!).  Those opportunities can be intimidating but are often the most valuable for growth. Don’t be afraid to say yes, be open about what you don’t know, reach out to colleagues for help, and work hard at learning new skills. That said, there is more to life than work so don’t take on so much that you can’t achieve a balance that works for you.

 

Describe your research contributions or interests

I recently retired from the US Food and Drug Administration after 30+ years in the research office of the Devices and Radiological Health. Over my career I was engaged in research programs in medical imaging systems and software tools including breast imaging systems and CT devices; digital pathology systems; medical display devices including Augmented Reality/ Virtual Reality systems; Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning and  other computer-aided diagnostics; biomarkers (measures of disease state, risk, prognosis, etc. from images as well as other assays and array technologies), and assessment strategies for imaging and other high-dimensional data sets from medical devices.

My work has been devoted to the development of a rigorous framework for evaluating imaging systems, where rigorous means we don’t base our evaluations on whether the imaging system gives nice-looking pictures, but by actually measuring the information in those images.  My research and that of my team provided medical device manufacturers with more predictive pathways to market for their innovative products based on solid scientific evidence of device performance while also providing the regulatory decision-making process with expertise and objective independent data so that regulatory decisions in this country aren’t based on just the company’s data.

Who was your most significant role model in science or in your career?

My most significant role model was Dr. Marcia McBeath. She was the first woman I met with a Ph.D., a woman who obtained her Ph.D. at Stanford in the 1960s at the same time as her husband, while raising 4 young children.  Later in her life she and her husband, newly empty nesters at the time, opened their home to me when I needed to leave Mexico and my family for better high schooling in the US.  She was a great example of making it all work – a career, marriage, and family. After Marcia and her husband retired from their professional careers they joined the U.S. Peace Corps, eventually being stationed in six foreign countries!

What piece of advice would you like to pass on?

I am super grateful for the opportunities I’ve had as a result of my education at the Wyant College of Optical Sciences. I’ve had the opportunity to travel and to meet people who are from all over the world, who are interesting and passionate about what they do, and making an impact on human health.  At the same time, getting that degree and working in our field can involve long hours and a lot of pressure. I’ve come to learn that it’s ok to let someone else know – your adviser, your supervisor, a friend – that you need to adjust the load to be healthy. When you communicate that need in a constructive way, most people will want to help make the changes that are needed so you’ll be healthy and successful in the long-term.