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DCE Magazine

A Career With Great Optics

Spring 2021

Mastering optical technology can lead to a lucrative career in a number of fields – and a DCE certificate can open the door.

“… the most important career preparation the students receive is how to ‘think optics,’ to the point where they can simplify complex problems and come up with solutions in a timely, cost-effective manner.” Keith Kasunic, Instructor

It’s one of the hottest tech sectors you might never have heard of, essential in practically every industry in the world, from automotive to entertainment, medical to communications. Optomechanical devices might sound dry, but they’re at the heart of an increasing number of consumer and business products – and demand for optical engineers is soaring.

Opportunity abounds in a wide range of fields that depend on optical systems. And it’s only going to keep growing, even in places you might not have suspected, said Keith Kasunic, instructor for the DCE Optical Engineering and Optical Instrument Design certificate programs.

“Since graduating with my PhD more than 20 years ago, the demand for well-trained optical engineers has kept increasing at a stunning rate,” he added. “Companies that no one anticipated would have a need for optical engineers – Apple being just one example – are major employers at this point, with projects ranging from smartphone cameras to autonomous vehicles to small satellites for climate monitoring from space.”

An industry consultant as well as a textbook author, Kasunic teaches a core introductory course that forms the basis for both the Engineering and Instrument Design programs. They’ve become incubators of sorts for top talent in this growing tech field.

Together they address the growing demand for skilled professionals who can conceptualize, design and manufacture optical components and systems that form the basis of today’s advanced and ubiquitous optics-based technology. In fact, it’s difficult to find a sector that doesn’t rely on these systems, from military defense to clean energy and beyond.

“The introductory course I teach centers on the five basic optical instruments that all optical engineers need to be familiar with: cameras, telescopes, microscopes, interferometers and spectrometers,” Kasunic said. “This course is UCI’s opportunity to show new students how interesting and full of opportunities this field is, and to encourage them to explore further.”

The instructor took time out to expand on the DCE Optics programs, the wide range of career prospects and his own background in the field.

How does your introductory course prepare students to succeed in the certificate program and in their careers?

The “Geometrical and Physical Optics” course is the ‘Introduction to Optics’ prerequisite course that all students are required to take for both the Optical Engineering and Optical Instrument Design certificates. Additional courses within the certificate then build and expand on these initial concepts. I also teach two of these: Optical Systems Engineering and Optomechanical Systems Engineering. For all of my courses, the most important career preparation the students receive is how to ‘think optics,’ to the point where they can simplify complex problems and come

What types of students take these courses? Where are they typically at in their careers?

Course enrollment typically has three types of students. A large number are already working in industry – entry level and mid-career – and have found that they’re interested in optics. They see the many career opportunities available. Other students are currently undergraduate or graduate students in mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, or physics, but don’t have the courses available at their universities, so they take the UCI courses to differentiate themselves in the job market. Finally, I also have students who are in mid-to-late career stages, managing optics projects despite no formal training in the field. They don’t need a certificate but will take a couple of UCI courses to get up to speed on the terminology and learn the right questions to ask to keep their projects on track.

You characterized the demand for optics professionals as “stunning.” What companies are most in need right now?

Traditional employers in the optical infrastructure – Newport Research in Irvine is an example – along with biomedical, aerospace, semiconductor manufacturing, and consumer products such as cameras. All of them have strong demand. UCI students come from all of these companies and many others, with an emphasis on the industrial optics centers in Southern California, the Bay Area, Boston and international locations, as well.

Can you give us some background on your own career and accomplishments?

I actually started out as an optomechanical engineer, at a time when there wasn’t yet such a category. So, I was really a mechanical engineer, working on lasers and telescopes. After a number of years of hands-on experience, I decided I also wanted to earn my graduate degree in optical engineering, so I returned to school at the University of Arizona. Since then, I have worked mostly in industry and as a consultant, although teaching keeps me active in academia as well. I’ve also managed to find time to write three optical-engineering textbooks, and I’m currently working on a fourth.

What drove you to teach these DCE courses?

Two things drive me to teach – the first is simply knowing that there are students who are interested in the material. The second is the intellectual challenge of solving the puzzle of how to teach a course in a way that keeps students interested and teaches them problem-solving skills that are useful in industry.

Are there any significant success stories or anecdotes about your students that you can share?

There are quite a few, actually. Many of our students have used their certificate to obtain employment. Some have gone on to graduate school at University of Arizona’s College of Optical Sciences in Tucson. One student recently told me about an interview for a job promotion, which he received based on his optics coursework at UCI. Another was a late-career project manager who took two of my courses, and then got in touch afterwards telling me how useful the courses were. So, all in all, a UCI Optics certificate has proven to be very useful to many students over the years.

Learn more about the Optics Programs.