Professional societies offer awards that encourage students

Feb. 12, 2007
This is the third column from Grace Klonoski of the Optical Society of America (OSA) on "SCIENCE & TECHNICAL EDUCATION: Spotlight on inspiring the next generation of scientists and business leaders."

Spotlight on inspiring the next generation of scientists and business leaders


Professional societies serve many purposes, from providing technical publications and conferences, to bringing together communities of experts to network and collaborate. Many of these organizations place a high priority on serving student members in an effort to build career-long affiliations with the young people who will one day be their key content providers and governance leaders.

In the physics and engineering fields, societies such as the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), the American Physical Society (APS), and the Optical Society of America (OSA), offer special membership packages that are customized to the needs and interests of undergraduate and post-graduate students. Student member benefits often include free or greatly reduced subscription and registration fees, career services, and networking events, as well as grant and fellowship opportunities.

Reviewer feedback of student paper submissions and the opportunity for young people to make presentations and take part in poster sessions are among the most valuable services professional societies provide. Most scientists can fondly recount where and when they delivered their first conference presentation. This is a career milestone that can help to build a long-lasting relationship between an individual and a professional society.

Competitions and awards are also important ways of encouraging student involvement and recognizing achievement. As is the case with paper submissions, award programs enable students to put their work in front of seasoned experts, receive feedback, and showcase superior work. Professional societies in our field offer a wide range of student awards, with prizes that vary from travel grants, scholarships, and cash prizes, to special presentation opportunities and recognition plaques.

A number of student awards are tied to specific conferences and are generously funded by individual donors and corporations. For example, the OSA hosts the Incubic/Milton Chang Student Travel Awards that are funded through an endowment from Milton and Rosalind Chang. This annual program provides ten grants of up to $1,000 each to students who travel to present papers at the Conference on Lasers and Electro-Optics (CLEO) or the OSA Annual Meeting/Frontiers in Optics. Also held in conjunction with the CLEO event, the New Focus/Bookham Student Award recognizes research excellence, presentation skills, and leadership in the optics community. Each year, seven individuals are selected from the first round of nominations. These finalists are judged based on their reference letters and presentation skills during a special session held during the conference. Six of the seven finalists each receive a $1,500 cash prize, and the top finalist receives $5,000.

Starting in 2008, a new student paper competition will be launched as part of the Optical Fiber Communication Conference (OFC) and the National Fiber Optic Engineers Conference (NFOEC). Sponsored by Corning Incorporated, this award will recognize outstanding optical-communications research generated by students. Judging criteria will include paper content, presentation skills, and reference letters. Cash prizes will be awarded to finalists.

The International Society for Optical Engineering (SPIE) promotes a number of student awards and grants. They also provide grants up to $5,000 to educational and research institutions. Suggested uses of SPIE grant awards include promotion of collaboration between SPIE student chapters and leveraging of off-site scientific facilities; sending students to SPIE-sponsored events; developing new courses; efforts at general public education (e.g. public workshops); books and library subscriptions; and on occasion, purchase of supplemental teaching tools or equipment. Grants are not meant to support research.

I take part in a number of OSA's award programs. It is energizing to work with the students as well as the companies and individuals who fund awards. Students often write thank-you letters explaining how important an award has been to their career. While the cash prizes are greatly appreciated, it is also clear that these students are benefiting tremendously from the experience and recognition that competitions provide. Society-hosted awards are especially helpful in bridging the next generation with potential employers. The importance of these opportunities is difficult to measure, but it is safe to say they go far beyond the value of a monetary prize.

If you or your employer are interested in contributing to the field in a lasting, meaningful way, I would encourage you to consider becoming involved in supporting a student award through a professional society. Please feel free to contact me if you would like assistance.

GRACE KLONOSKI is the Senior Director of OSA Foundation and Member and Education Services for the Optical Society of America, 2010 Massachusetts Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036; e-mail [email protected]; .

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