A Reflection on Women in Optics this International Women’s Day

How can you see inside the depth of living tissue? One way is with a technique called ‘two-photon excitation microscopy’ which allows imaging through about one millimeter depth. This technique is now widely used in biology and biomedicine – and its development can be directly linked to Maria Goeppert-Mayer, a Nobel Laureate (1963, Physics) and pioneering woman scientist and mathematician.

Dr. Goeppert-Mayer is most famous for proposing the nuclear shell model of the atomic nucleus, the work cited for her Nobel, but she wrote her doctorate in 1930 on the theory of possible two-photon absorption by atoms. It took the invention of the laser thirty years later for her theory to be proven experimentally. By the late 1980’s, besides applying two-photon absorption to imaging living cells, researchers began to  look at how to store very large amounts of data (3D optical data storage),  how to make micro-sized three-dimensional objects (3D microfabrication) and how to treat cancer (photodynamic therapy). Dr. Goeppert-Mayer’s doctorate idea continues to impact several key technology fields.

Goeppert Mayer. Credits: Wikimedia Commons.

Goeppert Mayer. Credits: Wikimedia Commons.

On March 8th, the International Women’s Day was celebrated. The theme for 2015 is “Make it Happen”. This International Year of Light (IYL 2015) makes it a great time to reflect on how women have, are, and will impact the science and technology of light by making innovations happen.

Logo International Women's day

Logo International Women’s day

The IWD was launched in 1911 as a means for encouraging effective action for advancing and recognizing women. Incidentally, during that same year, an icon of women in science, Marie Curie, won her 2nd Nobel Prize. For many of us, Dr. Curie and Dr. Goeppert-Mayer are important role models, showing that even at times when women were actively discouraged from aspiring to become scientists and engineers, determination could overcome the challenges presented by society. Dr. Goeppert-Mayer in particular had to overcome significant hurdles to obtain a paying job in her chosen field.

These days, while more women are graduating with Bachelor’s degrees than men in some parts of the world, there is still a large disparity in the numbers that are becoming scientists and engineers (1). That disparity is easy for those of us who are in the midst of our careers in optics and photonics to see – just go to any conference in our field and witness how few women attend, let alone present their work or lead conferences.

For that reason, there is a need beyond the IWD to support and encourage women to participate in the broad and impactful field of optics. Societies such as the International Society for Optics and Photonics (SPIE) work hard to provide mechanisms for connecting women in our field and encouraging them to join it. Each year, the SPIE highlights women in optics in its yearly planner that features profiles of successful women in STEM, as detailed here. SPIE also organizes events such as the annual Women in Optics (WiO) Presentation and Reception, held during SPIE’s Photonics West Conference. The most recent WiO event in February 2015 had a panel discussion titled: “The Road Less Traveled: Women in Science & Technology Leadership”. This year’s panelists included Susan Toussi, VP of Engineering at Illumina, a leader in high-throughput DNA sequencing, and Nicoletta Casanova, CEO of FEMTOprint, making 3D printing stations for glass microdevices (incidentally, based on a technique related to Dr. Goeppert-Mayer’s dissertation topic).  The stories that they shared about their paths to succeed at a high level in optics were inspiring, and many students were able benefit from hearing about their journeys and talking with the panelists during the reception.

Annual Women in Optics Presentation and Reception held during SPIE’s Photonics West Conference. Credits: SPIE

Annual Women in Optics Presentation and Reception held during SPIE’s Photonics West Conference. Credits: SPIE

This IWD during IYL 2015, let’s celebrate the women who have lit the way, support the women who are ‘making it (optics innovations) happen’, and encourage the young women who will be contributing to our world through their future work.

Who knows?  You may be fostering a woman who makes the next great idea in optics happen.


1 – See http://www.light2015.org/Home/ScienceStories/Women-in-Science.html

Michelle StockMichelle L. Stock, Ph.D. has spent her career in the field of lasers as an engineer and business developer, and is currently a consultant to companies developing leading-edge lasers.  Dr. Stock obtained her Ph.D. on ultrafast fiber lasers in 1994 from the University of Michigan. After graduating, she joined IMRA America. In 2007, she co-founded Arbor Photonics to improve lasers for precision material processing. She has over 45 publications and 3 patents. Dr. Stock is chairperson of Mi-Light (the Michigan Photonics Industry Cluster) and has been active in the U.S.-based National Photonics Initiative (NPI), SPIE, OSA and LIA. She will chair this year’s Laser Microprocessing Conference during ICALEO 2015.

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