Alexis Vogt '00, '08 PhD

Building a pipeline to train and place optics technicians

Picture a morning meeting at an optics company. The lead technician—the person responsible for manufacture, testing, and quality control of optical components—has called in sick. There is nobody else with the skills to fill in. Key orders that came in during the last 24 hours cannot be filled.

The scenario—posed by Alexis Vogt '00, '08 PhD, at SPIE’s 2019 Conference on Education and Training in Optics and Photonics—“is playing out in optics companies around the world,” she explains.

Why? Because the technical workforce for the optics industry is “shrinking at an alarming rate.” In a field in which 20 percent of experienced technicians and engineers are approaching retirement, for example, 75 percent of Upstate NY optics technician job openings go unfilled each year.

Vogt is in the right place, at the right time, to help address this problem.

The Monroe Community College associate professor has re-invigorated MCC’s Optical Systems Technology Program. The nation’s only two-year degree program training technicians for work in the precision optics industry now has new industry-based curricula and industry-standard lab equipment. It is also building collaborations that allow more high school students to earn college credits toward a degree -- creating a pipeline to attract the students to optics programs at MCC for two-year degrees, then on to the University of Rochester and Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) if they want to pursue a BS.

This is especially critical for the Rochester region—a traditional optics manufacturing hub with more than 120 companies.

“We've been training optics technicians here at MCC for more than 50 years and we now see it as more important than ever," Vogt says. "We are growing awareness in this region, and that's really powerful.”

Her introduction to optics

Vogt, who has born in Greensboro, NC, later moved with her family to Amherst, NY. She was first exposed to optics when her father, Robert Spilman ’65, an ordained Lutheran minister, helped her build a periscope for a sixth-grade science project.

“I remember being fascinated by the mirrors and the bending light,” Vogt explains in profile for SPIE. “But, as I continued through middle and high school, my interests included not only science, but also music and the humanities as well as social science disciplines.”

She enrolled at the University of Rochester in 1996 still undecided on a major. Then she took an introductory optics course taught by Professor Turan Erdogan. “He became my inspiration: his ability to distill complex optics principles in a compelling and engaging way is remarkable,” Vogt says.

While pursuing a major in optics and minor in mechanical engineering, Vogt received the Institute of Optics Faculty Award, an Undergraduate Teaching Intern Award from the Physics Department, and was elected to Tau Beta Pi.

She was also awarded a Take 5 scholarship (link to program) to study American culture through music, English and history disciplines.

She began her graduate studies at The Institute in 2001. A member of SPIE and OSA, she continued her undergraduate involvement in youth outreach, coordinating and presenting optics demonstrations to children and educators both locally and internationally. Throughout her studies at the University, she played violin with the River Campus Chamber Orchestra. She also served as co-chair of the student advisory group for the Trustee’s Presidential Search Committee in 2004.

In 2007 she received the SPIE Optifab student poster award and the OSA best student presentation contest.

Her thesis, “Stress-Engineered Optical Elements,” was supervised by Prof. Thomas Brown.

After graduating she worked for nearly six years as optical design engineer and project manager, designing and developing innovative contact and intraocular lenses for Bausch & Lomb, then serving as optical physicist and manager of medical affairs for the company’s Global Vision Care division.

She then worked for Melles Griot (IDEX) for two years as senior product manager, then as applications and business development manager.

These experiences helped her understand firsthand the risk that a lack of trained technicians poses to the industry.

Program lets students OPT IN!

In 2015 Vogt was appointed endowed chair and associate professor of optics at MCC to strengthen and grow the college’s optics and photonics program to meet workforce demands.

In 2017, she received a $550,000 National Science Foundation grant to launch the college’s Optics & Photonics Technology INnovation-OPT IN! initiative.

OPT IN! includes a unique dual enrollment initiative in which optics courses are taught in 12 local high schools by qualified high school teachers. Students who successfully complete the courses receive Monroe Community College credit. Moreover, the initiative features summer internships and transfer opportunities between MCC and four-year institutions such as the University of Rochester for students who wish to pursue a bachelor’s degree.

This has increased the number of MCC optics and photonics graduates by 325% from May 2016 and increased the number of dual enrollment high school students by 260% from 2013.

The OPT IN! initiative also offers internship opportunities and expands outreach efforts to populations underrepresented in the optics and photonics industry, such as women, veterans and individuals from minority groups. This includes development of a portable ‘Optics Road Show’ and other public presentations. Many of these initiatives have been tailored for women, African Americans, Latinos and those from low income backgrounds.

In October 2019, Vogt received a $4.4M grant from the U.S. Office of Naval Research to strengthen and expand the national precision optics workforce to ensure technological superiority for the Department of Defense. The grant funds the Defense Engineering Education Program in Optics (DEEP OPS) to increase the national optics workforce through innovative training programs; expanded enrollment, retention, and graduation of underrepresented populations; and strengthened alliances with the optics network, pre-collegiate educators, and industry partners.

Her efforts have been recognized with these awards:

  • Rochester Business Journal Forty Under 40 recipient ( 2016);
  • The 2017 Rochester Regional Photonics Cluster/New York Photonics Educator of the Year Award;
  • 2018 National Women’s Hall of Fame Keeper of the Flame Award recipient
  • 2020 ATHENA Young Professional award finalist

‘Do not be discouraged’

As a female in a male-dominated field, Vogt says, “I have often found myself as the only woman in a class, meeting, or presentation. As the daughter of two loving, inspiring, and supportive parents—including a strong, determined mother—I never viewed this as a challenge, but as an opportunity.”

She says she has been inspired over the years by words of Joshua 1:9: “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.” Those words, she believes, are particularly relevant for women interested in STEM fields.

Her “all-time favorite text,” she adds, came from her husband a few years ago, announcing: "Your three-year-old daughter just said 'diffraction grating'!"

“I hope the work I do inspires kids, particularly more girls, to pursue STEM-related—and hopefully optics—fields.”