SCIENCE & TECHNOLOGY EDUCATION: Photonics leader helps students achieve their goals

May 2, 2008
Milton Chang is admired for his leadership in science, business, and nonprofit arenas. But the tremendous generosity that Dr. Chang and his wife Rosalind have extended to students and professional organizations such as the Optical Society of America is far less known.

Spotlight on inspiring the next generation of scientists and business leaders.


Dr. Milton Chang believes in giving back to the scientific community. The noted scientist, businessman, venture capitalist and Laser Focus World columnist is also a philanthropist who has been supporting students and professional organizations such as the Optical Society of America (OSA) for well over a decade. With his wife Rosalind, Chang has established a number of awards and scholarships to support and encourage the next generation of optics professionals.

The OSA Incubic/Milton Chang Travel Grant, begun in 1992 as the New Focus Student Travel Award, provides grants to enable students who present papers to travel to the Conference on Lasers and Electro-Optics (CLEO) and the Frontiers in Optics (FiO)/OSA Annual Meeting. Funded through an endowment to the OSA Foundation, the program originally provided 10 students with $500 awards each at CLEO and FiO. Beginning in 2005, Chang increased the stipends to $1000.

Chang's interest in encouraging student conference participation stems from an OSA co-sponsored meeting that first inspired him professionally. "I attended the 1969 International Quantum Electronics conference as a graduate student," Chang said in a 2003 interview. "That event really impressed me, giving me the opportunity to see so many of my heroes. People like Tingye Li and Herwig Kogelnik, whose papers I had studied, were in attendance."

Students who have benefited from the travel grants are enthusiastic about the value of the program. Meredith M. Lee, a Stanford Ph.D. candidate in electrical engineering and president of the Stanford OSA Chapter, received a grant in 2007. "Receiving the OSA student travel award allowed me to fly across the country to attend a very exciting CLEO meeting—without funds being subtracted from unrestricted accounts or a research project budget (I remember this gratefully when I am aligning all my expensive optics components!)," she said. "At last year's conference I stayed the whole duration, not only participating in technical sessions, but also enrolling in short courses and networking with the other grant recipients and many student OSA representatives. It was great to have the support from the Incubic/Milton Chang award so I could make the most of the trip."

Receiving the award enabled Tyler Ralston, a graduate student at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, to attend his first OSA meeting. "The grant provided me a chance to present theoretical work which, through implementation, eventually led to a publication in a prestigious journal (Nature Physics)," said Ralston. "I would say that this conference was the turning point of my career in terms of public speaking, as it ascribed a level of confidence and solidarity. I have attended over 20 conferences since then, but the OSA Frontiers in Optics meeting was the best conference experience of any that I have attended."

Yannick Keith Lize, now a senior optical designer at Stratalight Communications in Los Gatos, CA, is a three-time award winner. "For me, the OSA student travel grants have had a dramatic influence on my career and I strongly feel that I would not be where I am today without them," he said. "Not only did I get to present my research in front of some of the world's top scientists, I was actually able to meet and network with them. I met Prof. Ben Eggleton from the University of Sydney in Australia at an OSA meeting and ended up doing a five-month internship. Ben then helped me get an internship in Dr. Randy Giles's group at Lucent Bell Labs, one of the world's most prestigious research laboratories, the following year. I also met Prof. Alan Willner, now editor of Optics Letters, which led to an eight-month internship in 2006 at the University of Southern California. Additionally, Professor Willner became my Ph.D. thesis co-supervisor. All these invaluable experiences and references would not have been available to me without the OSA student travel grants.

"A price could not be placed on the value of getting to present one's research at a major conference, of getting to network with world renowned scientists or on building up one's resume by winning a student travel grant," added Lize. "Opportunities are out there for students to grab—be proactive!"

Lazaro Padilha, a researcher scientist in the Nonlinear Optics Group at the College of Optics & Photonics, University of Central Florida, and a two-time winner, had a similar experience. "Winning the OSA Incubic/Milton Chang Travel Grants for two years allowed me to attend the OSA annual meeting, present my research, and make many contacts," he said. "It was at one of the OSA Annual Meetings that I was invited to work at CREOL as a post-doc fellow. Since the OSA Incubic/Milton Chang Travel Grants are based also on the research excellence, winning it was a great incentive to my carrier."

Chang has also played a pivotal role in the creation of other awards. The OSA Leadership Award/New Focus Prize, which he established in 1997 with the support of New Focus aims to strengthen the link between the optics community and the public. The award recognizes an individual or group of optics professionals whose actions or policy outside the technology arena have made a significant social, economic, political or humanitarian contribution to society, or an individual or group whose actions, policy or support have made a significant impact on the field of optics. Single contributions as well as a cumulative record of achievements may be honored.

Earlier, he created the Newport Fellowship Awards to encourage research excellence, presentation prowess, and leadership in the optics community among students.

In addition, Chang has established scholarships at several universities. "I enjoy giving back to the community through scholarships, as they enable the next generation of scientists," he said. "I know that it would have been impossible for me to work my way through college without the financial help provided by scholarships. Even today, I always keep in mind the saying, 'Give a man a fish; it feeds him for a day. Teach a man how to fish, it feeds him a lifetime.' "

Milton Chang emigrated from Hong Kong to the U.S. in 1960 to attend college. He earned a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering with highest honors from the University of Illinois, and master's and Ph.D. degrees in electrical engineering from the California Institute of Technology. He received a tuition scholarship from the University of Illinois, a part-time job working in Paul Coleman's millimeter-wave and laser laboratories, and at Caltech, a graduate research assistant position working for Nicholas George. Chang began his entrepreneurial career at Newport Corp., then a start-up company. He later cofounded New Focus, and since then has incubated nearly 20 highly successful companies. He is a founder and managing director of Incubic, a venture fund in Silicon Valley created to help entrepreneurs build companies.

Chang is a Fellow of the Optical Society of America and the Laser Institute of America, and a former President of IEEE LEOS and LIA. He has received the Distinguished Alumni Award from both the University of Illinois and Caltech and was recently elected a member of the Board of Trustees of Caltech and an Overseer of the Huntington Library.

The OSA Foundation, created in 2002, is dedicated to supporting programs that advance youth science education, provide optics education and resources to underserved populations, and provide career and professional development resources.

GRACE KLONOSKI is the Senior Director, Foundation and the Member & Education Services for the Optical Society of America, 2010 Massachusetts Ave, NW, Washington, DC 20036; email: [email protected]; Web site:

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