Looking for a career path? Consider photonics

Looking for a career path? Consider photonics

Bill Wagner, director of photonics education for Thorlabs, speaks with Tess Erickson, a first-year computer science major, during a visit by Thorlabs Mobile Photonics Lab.

As part of its national effort to introduce the field of photonics to students, Thorlabs brought its mobile demonstration lab to Rowan University’s Glassboro campus this week, giving visitors hands-on experiences with instruments used to measure, study and harness light.

Headquartered in New Jersey, the global company designs and manufactures scientific tools used in a vast array of applications from spectroscopy and tomography to communication. Even so, common knowledge about the industry and its job prospects remains rather dim.   

“New Jersey has the highest density of photonics companies in the world,” said Robert Chimenti, coordinator of Rowan’s photonics program. “We’ve got some of the largest players, like Thorlabs … but what we don’t have is a trained workforce.

“It’s a huge industry,” Chimenti added, “but nobody knows it exists.”

Representatives from Thorlabs spoke with students about the field and career opportunities in the industry that’s advancing research and innovation in health care, aerospace, manufacturing, clean technologies, telecommunications and more. 

Robert Oszust joined Thorlabs after graduating from Rowan in 2015 with a physics degree. Now working in business intelligence, Oszust spoke with interested students about the way light is used to identify the chemical composition of gas, even on distant planets. 

When physics major Ben McConaughey explained he’s studying spectroscopy while working in Rowan laser lab, Oszust urged him to check out the jobs available on Thorlabs’ website.  

Jamison Engelhardt, a doctoral student in materials science and engineering, stopped by the lab to explain why he’s also pursuing a Certificate of Graduate Study in photonics.  

“It’s how modern society functions,” Engelhardt said. “You don’t have televisions, cell phones, computer screens—none of that works without working in photonics. There’s also a large employee vacuum, too, so there’s a lot of jobs in it, too.”

“It’s a really diverse field and there’s essentially an endless sea of opportunity because it’s in everything,” Engelhardt added.

With photonics courses and programs under development from the community college to graduate school levels, Rowan and its partners are working to meet industry demand for workers, Chimenti noted. 

Along with Princeton University, Rowan University co-leads Advancing Photonics Technologies, a collaboration of universities, community colleges, industry, workforce development and technology accelerators in New Jersey, Delaware, New York and Pennsylvania. The organization is charged with amplifying application-driven research and technology translation combined with educational and workforce development.