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Optics program graduates first class

6/29/2021 3:10:38 PM

About 2 and 1/2 years ago, Paul Melone, Plant Director at Thorlabs in Newton, attended a symposium in Rochester, NY. The focus was on national security and the shortage of optic technicians.

It was noted by the keynote speaker that years earlier, optic programming was shipped overseas, so there was no reason to be training optic technicians in the United States. But as the needs of the Department of Defense changed so did the need for optic technicians.

"There were things that needed to be made here, that couldn't be made anywhere else," said Melone.  "With a shortage of optics people in the U.S., especially with defense, It now became a national security issue. I became inspired to change that."

When Melone came back from the symposium he immediately reached out to several potential partners, including Sussex County Community College. Sussex was already a partner with Thorlabs with the Machine Tool Technology program and also had an optics program in motion. This partnership would be a new challenge. 

"I called (College President) Jon Connolly and told him what we wanted to do and he said, 'Yes, of course, we are here for you.'" 

Sussex's A.A.S. in Optics Technology degree now had the opportunity to bring students to another level. Fast-forward a couple of years and, this past May, Sussex graduated its first six students from the Optics program. They include Samuel Suarz, Melissa Scanlon, Jared Slate, Kelly Dowling, Enrique Gomez and Daniel Sappio.  All six are employees at Thorlabs.

"Our graduates have come a long way in such a short time," said Brian Lake, Optics Technology Supervisor at Sussex. "For most of them, they had been working on their own, in a small bubble of the huge sphere that encompasses all of optics technology. Our program allowed them to broaden their horizons, learn about the fundamental concepts behind the work they do, and strengthen their ability to produce the best components they're capable of."

Scanlon added, "The optics program has been an eye-opening experience for me. Working at Thorlabs, I only see one aspect of the optics industry. My initial knowledge of optics was very limited, and I didn't know much past general physics. Having classes that taught how lenses were created, their functions, and the trials that go into the manufacturing process has given me a greater respect for those that do this work for a living."

She added, "The program has also provided me with a strong foundation in the fundamentals, and now I feel I have a stronger understanding of my field."

Slate, who has worked at Thorlabs for six years, noted that "I worked with many products and I wanted to learn how they functioned, or what they were used for in the real world. I have worked many jobs before coming to Thorlabs and I have decided that this is where I will be for a long time. I thought the optics program would be a very good career for me."

The COVID pandemic caused challenges this past year, and actually took a toll on some students who were unable to complete the program this time around. Still, the program persisted and moved forward, even though there was some unfortunate down time.  

"We had to deal with furloughs and/or having classes put on hold for a few months due to the pandemic," said Scanlon. "This prevented some of my classmates from finishing the program. Classes online made it harder to do demonstrations, which made it harder to learn some of the topics, especially in the lab classes. Hopefully the world is in a better state where students won't have to experience that interruption again."

The students endured, a testament to their hard work and commitment to the optics industry. 

"I saw their interest in their jobs increase and saw their willingness to improve," said Myeong Nam, Assistant Director of Coating at Thorlabs quality of product. "It is hard to find people with the right knowledge in this industry."

"Technicians who participate in our program show a deeper understanding of their work and a strong ability to apply their skills in the manufacturing environment," Lake pointed out. "Furthermore, they obtained knowledge far beyond general on-the-job training."

Upon completing this A.A.S. degree program at Sussex, students will have the necessary skills to become employed as a technician in the optics industry. Career opportunities also exist in quality control, optical coating, laser fabrication, fiber optics, and precision assemblies. F

To learn more about this and other programs, including educational requirements and detailed course curriculum, please visit sussex.edu/academics.