To accompany Applied Optics’ Institutional Focus Issue on CREOL, M. J. Soileau’s guest editorial tells the story of how the College of Optics and Photonics (CREOL) at the University of Central Florida quickly grew from its inception to become one of the premier programs in optics and lasers.

© 2019 Optical Society of America

We thank the OSA and the editorial leadership of Applied Optics for the feature focused on research in CREOL, the College of Optics and Photonics at the University of Central Florida (UCF). My assigned task was to give a bit of perspective on how this organization developed. Disclaimer: this is my perspective of the development of our college, and in no way meant to be either representative or a comprehensive history. I will use the privilege of elders to shorten the names associated with our disciplines to just “optics” in this essay. I will also use the short hand of CREOL, meaning the College of Optics and Photonics.

With 35 core faculty, 22 joint faculty, 50 research scientists and postdocs, 15 visiting scholars, 58 industrial affiliates, and 5 startup companies located in our core facility, in addition to 265 students, CREOL is a bustling, exciting, interesting, and fun place to be for anyone interested in optics. In the 2018, our faculty published over 200 journal papers and secured 14 issued patents. In tune with the characterization of UCF standing for “under construction forever,” we are expanding our main building. We have a second site on campus for our focused materials efforts. There is a joint IFAST attosecond laser lab in the physical science building, and CREOL has a lab and an outdoor test range at the Kennedy Space Center. In addition, of course we continue to recruit faculty and students. I think it is reasonable to say that a snapshot is all one ever gets at CREOL!

A similar snapshot of UCF reveals one of the nation’s largest universities with an enrollment of over 68,500 students with 95 bachelor, 87 master, and 34 doctoral degree programs. We are a Carnegie “Research University/Very High Research Activity” institution, located in Orlando, Florida, about equal distance between Disney World and the Kennedy Space Center. We graduate over 15,000 students per year. Here are some UCF highlights: 1. Our cybersecurity team won the national championship three years in a row. 2. Our computer programming team is among the top teams internationally. 3. Our College of Engineering and Computer Science supplies more engineers to the aerospace industry than any other university in the country. 4. UCF has one of the nation’s top planetary sciences programs. 5. Our football team is one of the top teams in the nation, having recently completed its second straight undefeated regular season and challenging the status quo of the Power Five football conferences.

How and when did all this happen? The short answer is that CREOL has tracked the exponential growth of UCF, or perhaps it is vice versa.

1. In the Beginning

I arrived at UCF on January 2, 1987, to be the first director of CREOL and with a mandate to build the top program in optics and lasers modeled loosely on the Institute of Optics at the University of Rochester and the Optical Sciences Center at the University of Arizona. Faculty would be recruited from a variety of traditional scientific and engineering disciplines with a common interest in optics. The primary resource for accomplishing this was a \$1.5 million base annual budget from the state of Florida. In the next legislative session, the funding support was raised to \$2 million per year. We were promised sufficient office and lab facilities for 20 tenured or tenure earning faculty that were expected to be hired. We enjoyed strong support from Florida industry, most notably the late Bill Schwartz, who was known as the founder of the laser industry in Florida.

Among our opportunities and problems was the simple fact that UCF was a brand new university, having graduated its first students in June of 1970. Enrollment was about 15,000 students, almost all undergraduates, with only two PhD programs in computer science and in engineering. UCF was founded as Florida Technological University to provide engineering talent to the aerospace industry in Florida, which was centered in the Orlando region and at the Kennedy Space Center. In 1980 the university was renamed the University of Central Florida as its enrollment grew and its mission expanded.

Upon my arrival, I discovered that the space allocated to CREOL consisted of just a suite of three offices and a doublewide trailer for laboratories! Additional space had to be negotiated with the department chair and dean. I also discovered that the initial appropriation was allocated to fund various “CREOL research projects.” My efforts to gain control of the CREOL funds led the Council of Chairs to seek my removal within two weeks of my arrival. What had I gotten myself into?

I had more or less negotiated the hiring of Eric Van Stryland and David Hagan, who made up our nonlinear optics research group at the University of North Texas. However, getting approval for competitive salaries and securing lab space so that we could transfer our funded research was an all-consuming battle. Nevertheless, we prevailed, and space was found and modified for us in the recently completed engineering building.

2. Phase Changes

Progress in CREOL’s development is best described not so much by growth but by “phase changes” in the Center and the university. The first phase change was the arrival of the “Texans,” Eric Van Stryland (who would become founding dean of the College of Optics and Photonics and president of OSA), David Hagan (currently associate dean of the College), a post doc (Mansoor Sheik-Bahae, currently professor of physics at the University of New Mexico), seven graduate students, and a technician. With the Texans came 42,000 pounds of lab tables, lasers, associated equipment, and funded projects from DARPA, the Army Night Vision Lab, NSF, and ONR.

At CLEO in 1987, we had several papers with stickers covering the old affiliation with the new CREOL affiliation, and we were working the receptions and hallways trying to recruit faculty. We were up and running!

3. Space Wars

The second phase change was securing space for the planned growth of CREOL. Infrastructure always follows growth at state-funded universities.

In securing space for the Texans, it became clear that there was no way to get the needed facilities for new hires. The solution was to lease space in the Central Florida Research Park (contiguous with the main UCF campus.) There was no money for converting bare spec space (no interior wall, electrical services, water, etc.) into laser labs. The owner would provide the buildout if we signed a five-year lease. We were told this was not possible since the state budget was year by year, and we had no authority to make a long-term commitment. We found a solution by providing an escrow account (funded with money allocated for faculty hires) that could be drawn down each year during the five-year lease. This worked well since we were very meticulous about faculty hires and it would take a few years to fill our faculty positions.

By the end of 1987, we had secured renovated space for the new labs and we moved into the new labs over the Christmas–New Year holiday.

4. Hiring Faculty

The reality of CREOL development was that every faculty hire was a phase change event. We were not just bigger, but also more complex and a different sort of organization. That said, the hires in 1989–1990 represented a major phase change. Among those hires were George Stegeman, Martin Richardson, William “Bill” Silfvast, and Martin Stickley. Instead of having to chase after possible candidates, folks were seeking me out and asking some version of “what the heck is going on at CREOL?” These were senior leaders of our discipline, each with his or her own network of friends, collaborators, and colleagues, and all wanted to know how we managed to hire these folks to a little-known “compass” university (meaning not a flagship institution). This was a major phase change for CREOL!

By then our colleagues at UCF had recognized that we had assembled a powerful research team, but questioned whether or not we could design and administer a graduate program. In a heated debate with the then-Chair of the Electrical Engineering Department, I pointed out that George Stegeman alone had graduated more PhDs than all of UCF up to that point. Debate over, and we were allowed to establish an MS and PhD program in optical science and engineering within the electrical engineering department.

5. Opportunities and Accomplishments

A major opportunity developed in 1988 when the state of Florida secured $20 million in the DARPA budget. While CREOL was not involved in securing this commitment, a chance encounter with the vice chancellor of the State University System led to a visit to CREOL by a DARPA consultant tasked with defining an appropriate statewide project. This led to an increase in our extramural funding and, more importantly, allowed CREOL to win the trust of the chancellor, and additional recurring funds for faculty positions. Our faculty developed leading efforts in laser and nonlinear optical crystal growth; new high-power, short-pulse laser systems; and closer collaboration with industry under this project.

6. Back to Campus

Recruiting continued and the accomplishments of our faculty and students accelerated. We outgrew the initial facility in the research park and had to lease more space for our new free electron laser effort and other faculty needs. Over the December 1995 holidays, we moved back to campus into a new, 80,000-square-foot facility that we designed specifically for optics, laser, and photonics research. This was yet another major phase change since it placed us back in the heart of the campus, provided additional space for our ongoing recruitment of faculty and students, and positioned us to better interact with the growing research activities of other UCF units.

A highlight of the move included a “potato gun” salute (we got away with lots of fun things by working over the weekends and holidays!) and a laser ribbon cutting for the building by the chancellor. A waveguide CO2 was used to cut the ribbon. The students sandwiched some gunpowder between two ribbons, resulting in a most memorable ribbon cutting by the chancellor!

7. CAOS and Community

In the early years, our faculty were tenured or tenure-tracked in the traditional departments and our students came from various units as well. In order to establish a sense of community at CREOL, we encouraged the students to form student chapters of the various professional societies that serve our discipline. This also helped foster the students’ professional development. The students then formed their own campus group, effectively combining the various professional society student chapters. The student organization was aptly called CAOS, the CREOL Association of Optics Students. They sought resources from all concerned; i.e., they applied for funds from the professional societies and sought “matching funds” for CAOS through student government. They used those resources to go to professional meetings and to develop their own outreach program to K–12 schools. Certainly, this community of students was a phase change for CREOL.

During this period, we looked for opportunities for social events, my favorite being our annual Spring Thing, which is a family-friendly event where faculty cook the food and serve the students. We also had a fall event, a holiday event, etc. These were fun things to do, but they also helped establish the collegial environment of the organization that was, and remains, critical.

8. Our Own Academic Programs

We delayed seeking our own degree programs so that we could help the physics department get its PhD program approved. Our original plan was to educate students in the fundamentals of the discipline as well as in hard-core engineering. We wanted to groom optics graduates that could both build lasers and other optical devices and understand the physics fundamentals so they could conceive new devices and make existing devices better.

By 1996, the PhD in physics was established at UCF, soon followed by chemistry and mathematics. In January 1996, the university system Board of Regents approved MS and PhD programs in optical science and engineering offered through the electrical engineering department. This, too, was a major phase change.

9. The External Review Panel

Problems persisted in finding a proper tenure home, as well as in the complex hiring process for new faculty. We had launched new graduate programs in optical science and engineering but encountered great difficulty hiring a faculty member to teach optical design. Neither the electrical engineering nor physics departments would agree for it to be a tenure-tracked position in their unit. In the spring of 1996, we convinced an external review panel (ERP) to review our progress, structure, plans, and programs. Chaired by the late Dr. Art Guenther, with Robert “Bob” Shannon (University of Arizona), and Brian Thompson (University of Rochester), as members, the ERP was critical to CREOL’s success and evolution.

The key recommendation of the ERP was to transform CREOL into an academic unit with its own degree programs, tenure of its faculty, etc. That sparked an intense, yearlong, campuswide debate. On February 18, 1998, Provost Gary Whitehouse announced the approval of the School of Optics, and on September 11, 1998, the Board of Regents gave its formal approval to the school. Indeed, this major phase change set the stage for the success we currently enjoy!

On January 11 and 12, 1999, we held the School of Optics inaugural conference. This conference was co-chaired by Eric Van Stryland and Nobel Laureate Nico Bloembergen. Its speakers included four Nobel Prize winners (three already awarded and one to be awarded later), and many leaders from the optics community attended.

10. Leadership Changes

On July 1, 1999, I stepped down from the director’s position to become vice president for research at UCF. Eric Van Stryland agreed to serve as interim director of the new School of Optics. New leadership is always a phase change for any organization, and so it was for Eric’s selection. He offered a new, forward focus, immune from the battle scars that preceded the School of Optics, and CREOL grew in size and stature under Eric’s leadership!

11. The College of Optics and Photonics

The next phase change was in 2004 when Provost Terry Hickey announced that UCF was changing the School of Optics’ status to college. Eric Van Stryland became the founding dean of the College of Optics and Photonics. This was certainly a big deal since it was the first such college in the country, providing better visibility for our program, more stability, and another funding stream to support our expanding activities.

12. Centers of Excellence

The next big opportunity for CREOL was Governor Jeb Bush’s 2006 Centers of Excellence program, a statewide competitive call for proposals to add intellectual leadership in our universities with a focus on growing the state’s tech-based industries. Eric led the CREOL/School of Optics proposal for a “Photonics Center of Excellence,” and it was the top-rated in this competition. This award produced a $10 million cash investment from the state, four additional faculty lines from UCF, and three endowed chairs, placing CREOL in a strong position just as the photonics arena was heating up.

Indeed, this was a phase change in new resources, new focus, and enhanced visibility in the top levels of Florida’s state government. The program got off to a fast start due to existing photonics activities in the School of Optics, and the statewide visibility of that success helped convince Gov. Bush to sponsor a second competition.

Prof. Martin Richardson led CREOL’s winning second round proposal in 2007. Because of Martin’s close relationship with Nobel Laureate Charles Townes, he secured permission from Prof. Townes to name this new effort the Townes Laser Institute. The Townes Laser Institute award provided additional faculty lines along with the $4.5 million infusion from the state, and focused on new high-power laser sources for defense, manufacturing, laser surgery, optical fibers, ceramic lasers, and medical applications. Yet another phase change for CREOL!

13. A New Dean

After 10 years in administration, overseeing several major phase changes in the organization, and serving as the founding dean of CREOL, Eric Van Stryland decided to rejoin the faculty. His final task as dean was to lead the recruitment of his replacement, Prof. Bahaa Saleh, to serve as professor and dean.

Dean Saleh has provided great leadership in the growth of our faculty and the formation of our undergraduate program in photonics. Indeed, yet another phase change in our college! The undergraduate program, and the young enthusiastic students it brings into the building, has been both a great challenge and a stimulant for our college.

Dean Saleh continues to lead us forward in the never-ending quest for recruiting the best faculty and students, providing the best possible undergraduate and graduate education for our students, and helping Florida, and our nation, grow its knowledge-based industries.

When I took the job of director of CREOL in January 1987, I had the dream of creating an academic organization in optics and lasers that was better than I could ever be hired into, and then join its faculty. In July 2016, I left the central administration of the University to become a full-time faculty member in CREOL, the College of Optics and Photonics. Goal achieved! This has been a major phase change for me and it is a joy to be part of the faculty and to interact with students and colleagues on a daily basis.

Enjoy the sampling of the great work by our students and faculty presented in this focus issue and do come by and visit when you can.

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