February 03, 2006

CIT graduate, a pioneering scientist and former running star at Case, took fast track to the top of his field

James Wyant

When you think about the field of optics, also known as the science of light and applied in everything from DVDs, CDs, laser printers, computer chips, fiber optic communications and telescopes—the name James Wyant may not automatically pop into your head. But it should.

This pioneering optical scientist has ascended to the top of his field at the speed of light—or, you could even say, at the speed of a track star. As dean of the College of Optical Sciences at the University of Arizona, Wyant, CIT '65, also is a former captain of Case's cross country team. His humble beginnings at the Case Institute of Technology in the early 1960s at first gave him no indication that he would be in the position he's in now as the first dean of what is widely considered as the world's premier institute for optical science teaching and research education. But, Wyant says, his experiences with a legendary Case coach did help lead him on that exact path.

Future CIT track star spotted at HoJo's

To hear Wyant tell the story, Bill Sudeck, the late Case Western Reserve University coach who led several athletic teams for 46 years at the university and its predecessor, spotted him in a Howard Johnson's restaurant in Cleveland in the fall of 1961—his freshman year—and asked him if he had ever thought about running cross country or track at Case.

When asked if Sudeck had known Wyant before he approached him about running track at Case, he said he had no idea.

"He just knew right away, I guess. My friends and I must have looked like Case students to him," Wyant said. "And I was very thin, so Coach Sudeck must have pegged me as a runner immediately."

He was.

"I ran track in high school, but I had no intention of running track or cross country in college," said Wyant, a native of Lyons, a small farming town in northwest Ohio on the Michigan border. "My plan was to study hard, get my degree and get on with my life."

So Wyant told the coach no, he didn't want to run track.

Apparently, Coach Sudeck wouldn't take no for an answer.

"Coach Sudeck had other ideas," Wyant said, laughing.

Sudeck, who died of cancer in 2000, ignored Wyant's rebuff at the Howard Johnson's and told him where he needed to go on campus for the team's first practice. But he never showed up for that first practice. After all, Wyant said he'd had no intention of running track or cross country at Case. The next thing Wyant knew, his phone was ringing.

It was Sudeck.

"He gave me a call," said Wyant. "He was very persistent about getting me to try out for the team. So I decided to go, and it worked out very well. Coach Sudeck drove us pretty hard, and if we didn't listen to him, we were in big trouble. We weren't a great team, but we had a lot of fun. He took great care of all his players and was very devoted to all of the students."

Passing the Sudeck philosophy onto others

Wyant said that while Sudeck drove him and his fellow student-athletes hard, they all knew that the coach's ultimate goal was for them to realize their highest potential. "He was willing to work with any student," Wyant said. "He was a friend. If you had a problem, you could go to him and he would help you as much as he could. He was always available to us. Every college student needs that."

He also said that the transition to college caused him to find out that he was not always the best student in class, like he was in high school.

"Case was really good for me," he said. "And being a student-athlete coached by Bill Sudeck taught me to work hard and try to do the very best I could. He taught us that it was important to stay physically fit because after a good run or other kind of workout, your mind afterwards is always much fresher, it relieves tension, and you feel better physically and mentally. I believe that a regular exercise regimen was important to my success in business and academia. I've continued to exercise regularly to this day.

"Coach Sudeck taught that philosophy to his students every day," Wyant added. "I've tried to pass that philosophy on to my students at Arizona."

Wyant, who ran and lettered in track and cross country during all four years at CIT, received his undergraduate degree in physics, and then earned his master's and doctoral degrees at the University of Rochester. He made his way to Tucson, Ariz., in the 1970s and helped to create one of the world's hubs for the optics industry through optics research and entrepreneurship.

Working to design a world-class program from the ground up

The University of Arizona's College of Optical Sciences is recognized internationally as a world center for cutting-edge academic and research programs in optics, the science and technology of light, color, vision and imaging. As dean, Wyant oversees Arizona's newest college, one that boasts two Nobel prize winners in physics, Nicolaas Bloembergen and Willis Lamb, as well as a broad spectrum of research in the areas of lasers, remote sensing, medical optics, optical data storage, device fabrication, displays and imaging.

The college, founded as the University of Arizona Optical Sciences Center more than 40 years ago as an elite graduate school, is highly regarded as one of the best centers for optics research and academics in the world. It has since expanded its educational programs to include a rigorous bachelor's degree program in association with Arizona's College of Engineering and Mines. Wyant, who joined the faculty at Arizona in 1974 as an assistant professor, had been director of the Optical Sciences Center since 1999 when he was named the college's first dean in June 2005.

"Optics is perhaps the most exciting field there is—fast-paced, technologically challenging, and rapidly changing," Wyant said. "Our research thrusts at Arizona have initiated many of the changes we see in the field and we are continually working to reflect those changes in our academic and research programs."

Under Wyant's leadership, the College of Optical Sciences and the optics industry have grown in and around Tucson and continue to thrive. Known as "Optics Valley," Tucson's optics industry—spearheaded by the university and other businesses in the area—pours more than $650 million a year into the local economy through 150 employers and nearly 4,600 employees. The university has spent approximately $17.5 million to expand its optical sciences doctoral program, one of only two in the nation. Additionally, the University of Arizona's College of Optical Sciences is now launching its latest project—a new optical sciences teaching, research and conference facility replete with high-tech classrooms, state-of-the-art research labs and offices for additional faculty.

A pioneer in the field of optics

Wyant is considered a pioneer in many fields of optics, including holography, phase-shifting interferometry, multiple wavelength interferometry and vertical scanning interferometry. A fellow of the International Society for Optical Engineering (SPIE) and the Optical Society of America, Wyant has been widely recognized for his expertise and contributions in optical sciences, holding numerous patents and publishing more than 150 papers on optics. He has won numerous awards, including the SPIE's Gold Medal Award, the Photonics Circle of Excellence Award, and the University of Rochester College of Engineering Distinguished Alumnus Award.

Wyant also possesses a generous and entrepreneurial spirit, characteristics he encourages in his students at Arizona. In fact, Wyant himself is a locally grown optics success in Tucson.

In the early 1980s, Wyant opened WYKO Corporation, a laser interferometer company to design, manufacture, sell and service optical instruments for precision surface measurement, and served as its chairman and president from 1984 to 1997. He sold it to VEECO, a nanoscale solutions company, in 1997 and remained on its board through 1999.

"What I'm seeing now is that the number of students interested in starting companies is growing," Wyant says. "Many have come to see me for advice. Some students want to start their own businesses before they graduate, and while that is a wonderful goal, I always encourage them to work in the industry for awhile to get that valuable experience before they start a company. But I'm proud to say that we have several graduates who have started companies."

One of those companies is DMetrix Inc., the brainchild of former Wyant student and current UofA faculty member Michael Descour and a spinoff of the optical sciences program. DMetrix is the exclusive developer of array-microscope technology and is involved in innovative microscopic-imaging instrumentation for optical design, digital imaging, telecommunications and bioinformatics.

Wyant is especially pleased that DMetrix, of which Descour is now president, just won the award for Startup Company of the Year in the state of Arizona. Wyant is a board member of the company and has helped to finance it.

"I'm very proud of Mike," Wyant said. "Of course, I'm proud of all my students."

In 2001, Wyant and his wife, Louise, who passed away in 2004, endowed the Givens Chair in Optics at the University of Rochester honoring his former professor, M. Parker Givens, recognizing the important influence his former professor had on his career.

Success would have made Wyant's old track coach proud

As successful as he is now, Wyant, still an avid runner today at the age of 62, says he knows that his experiences at CIT as a student-athlete—and disciple of Coach Bill Sudeck—helped set him on the path to excellence.

Sudeck once said, "The greatest thrill in coaching is an ongoing thrill—meeting and coaching high-class people, watching my athletes advance to positions in industry or become doctors or lawyers, then come back to my office a few years later and say thanks."

Wyant's success must have thrilled Sudeck.

He was unable to visit the coach before he died, but Wyant says that Sudeck is someone he will always remember and keep close in his heart.

"Someone like Coach Sudeck was, and always will be, needed at Case," he said. "He was someone who genuinely cared about you, and spent time working with you, all the while helping you to realize your potential. I'll always remember Coach Sudeck and everything he did for me."

For more information: Laura M. Massie (216)-368-4442.

Posted by: Heidi Cool, February 3, 2006 10:59 AM | News Topics: Athletics, Case School of Engineering, Technology

Case Western Reserve University is committed to the free exchange of ideas, reasoned debate and intellectual dialogue. Speakers and scholars with a diversity of opinions and perspectives are invited to the campus to provide the community with important points of view, some of which may be deemed controversial. The views and opinions of those invited to speak on the campus do not necessarily reflect the views of the university administration or any other segment of the university community.