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Powering the Future

More than $2 million in grant money helps place BSU at the forefront of burgeoning photonics field
Story Series
Bridgewater Magazine

Aligning a laser can be tricky. Just ask the handful of physics majors who spend large chunks of time in a second-floor laboratory inside the Dana Mohler-Faria Science and Mathematics Center.

Actually, for them, working with lasers, as well as atoms, electrons and photons, is – if not child’s play – pretty much routine.

All the same, gaining experience in these rarified matters will likely lead these students to top graduate schools or careers with well-known engineering firms.

“It’s an insane opportunity,” said Jonathan Trzcinski, ’21, of Randolph. The physics and mathematics major feels he’s getting a jump-start on his career. “At any other school, we wouldn’t be able to do this kind of work until we were graduate students.”

The laser the students were working on involves a series of small mirrors, a couple of monitors and a gas-filled chamber, spread out on a long, rectangular lab table. As the excited students make adjustments and watch the monitors, bandied about are phrases such as “quantum computing” and “laser coding.” Any visitor to the lab would be impressed by the authority with which these young scientists speak. It’s clear they’ve done their homework and logged lots of hours in the lab. “I feel it makes us very promising candidates for graduate school or a top job in the industry,” said John Gilmore, ’20, a physics and computer science major from Franklin.

Bridgewater State University has recently received more than $2 million in grant money to help foster the creation of a photonics-based industry in the commonwealth. The university is one of a handful of schools in the state selected to lead this expected revolution. The others are Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Worcester Polytechnic Institute and Stonehill College.

Such a distinction brings a smile to Dr. Kristen Porter-Utley, dean of the Bartlett College of Science & Mathematics. “It shows we’re responding to workforce needs in the area, as well as those of our students,” she said. “Meanwhile, we’re building on the strength that has existed at Bridgewater for a long time now. We’re ahead of the curve, and we’re excited about that.”

Optics is a branch of physics relating to the study, creation, detection and manipulation of light in order to reveal nature from the quantum level to the structure and makeup of the cosmos. Optical engineers use light for applied applications stretching across entire industries, including information technology, metrology, medicine and telecommunication.

In the growing field of photonics, the electrons at the heart of today’s electronics are replaced by quanta of light called photons, promising increased bandwidth and lower power consumption. This has led to the field being hailed as a critical economic and industrial growth area at both the state and federal levels.

The workhorse of optics is the laser. Today, lasers are ubiquitous, found in everything from supermarket scanners to the most precise surgical tools. But at BSU, principle investigator of the recent grants, Dr.
Ed Deveney, professor of physics, and his students have been developing and using lasers to cool and trap atoms for quantum studies.

The program’s growth over the past two decades attracted Dr. Thaya Paramanathan, who, along with his students, uses lasers to trap and hold onto DNA for cancer and cellular research. More recently, the Department of Physics has brought onboard two of the brightest new faculty members in the field of photonics, Dr. Samuel Serna and Dr. Elif Demirbas.

All this has paved the way for the recent influx of grant money, as well as the first of its kind (once approved) engineering programs at BSU suggested by Dr. Deveney with Dr. Thomas Kling, who is a co-primary investigator on the grants.

Long Time Coming

Dr. Deveney was keeping an eye on the clock. It was a warm morning in late August, and he was expecting a representative from a local company eager to learn about what’s going on in his laboratory – specifically, the work in photonics and optics.

These visits are something that’s happening more and more these days. Earlier in the year, Draper Laboratory spent a day on campus talking to upperclassmen about job opportunities at the blue-chip engineering firm located in Cambridge. Already, a BSU graduate is working at Draper and another is an intern.

There’s good reason that an increasing number of area employers are hot to hire future BSU alumni. Specifically appealing are physics majors who’ve spent time working in one of the university’s five labs where in recent years an increasing focus has been on cutting-edge technologies.

“Massachusetts is rife with jobs in these fields,” said Dr. Deveney. “Our students have started getting jobs. Not just jobs, but exciting jobs.”

These jobs are part of what Dr. Deveney likes to call the Massachusetts light-based economy. Still a nascent industry, optics has attracted the attention and funding of both federal and state governments. The grants earned through BSU’s efforts include one for $770,000 to train technical workers in the field of photonics, and another for $1.4 million, that will fund capital purchases, ensuring BSU’s physics labs have the most up-to-date equipment.

To help meet the needs of growing fields such as optics, biophysics and various types of engineering, the Bartlett College of Science & Mathematics has introduced a minor and a concentration in optics. Next year, an undergraduate degree program in optical engineering is expected to begin, pending approval by the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education. It will include a 15-month, 30-credit certification program with apprenticeships at area tech companies.

Once approved, BSU’s optics offerings will be the first engineering program available in the state university system – other than Massachusetts Maritime Academy’s energy systems and marine engineering programs.

The move toward engineering-type programs did not happen overnight. The seeds can be found in a copy of the faculty publication, Bridgewater Review, penned by Dr. Deveney in 2000, when he was a bushy-haired, relative newcomer to what was then Bridgewater State College. In those pages, he advocated for an approach he saw work at Amherst College, where he’d previously taught.

“The idea was it’s not just about the classroom experience,” he said, “but what students are doing and how they define themselves outside the class.”

Laboratory experiments, fieldwork and hands-on experience were the watchwords of this new approach. The philosophy aligned well with developments happening across campus at the time, with the increased focus on undergraduate research and other initiatives. “There was a critical mass happening back then throughout the college,” Dr. Deveney said.

The approach, as well as the increased use of lasers and other high-tech instruments, necessitated additional lab space. Eventually, this helped lead to the building of the Dana Mohler-Faria Science and Mathematics Center. This provided five new labs for physics alone. Two new labs dedicated to photonics and optics will soon be available.

Dr. Deveney is especially proud to recount that the cutting-edge devices that propelled BSU to its place as a burgeoning leader in optics and photonics were all built by students. Among those devices are an external cavity tunable diode laser, optical tweezers (which can isolate DNA molecules) and the most recent laser used in photonics-related experiments.

President Frederick W. Clark Jr. recently cited the work of the Department of Physics in making BSU “a state and national leader in the exciting field of photonics and optical engineering.”

He went on to say, “The new program will prepare students to contribute to significant advances in areas like telecommunications, data communications,
laser-based radar and sensing.”

Taking a break from aligning the lasers in Dr. Deveney’s lab, Jonathan Trzcinski tried to put into words the feeling he gets from working with atomic particles and pondering the deeper mysteries of quantum physics. “It’s incredibly interesting,” he said. “What we’re doing is studying the very foundations of the universe.”u