A Q&A With SPIE CEO Dr. Kent Rochford

By Ed Biller

Kent Rockford
Image courtesy of SPIE

In April 2018, SPIE, the international society for optics and photonics, announced that Dr. Kent Rochford would become the organization's new CEO, following the retirement of Dr. Eugene Arthurs, who stepped down in June 2018.

Rochford most recently served as associate director for Laboratory Programs at National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), “providing direction and operational guidance for NIST's scientific and technical laboratory programs with 2,800 staff and an $800M budget. In this role, he represented the full breadth of laboratory activity to domestic and international constituencies, collaborators, stakeholders, the U.S. Congress, and advisory boards,” according to an SPIE release announcing the longtime SPIE member’s hire.  

Rochford — who holds a Ph.D. in optical sciences from the University of Arizona, a B.S. in electrical engineering from Arizona State University, and an M.B.A. from the University of Colorado — originally joined NIST in 1992 and served in a multitude of roles at the institute. He also spent time managing the engineering department of a startup optical-communications company, all of which makes him uniquely qualified to oversee an organization representing the interests of more than 264,000 researchers, engineers, and tinkerers across the globe. 

Recently, Dr. Rochford graciously made time to discuss with Photonics Online his vision for SPIE initiatives already underway, as well as those the future may hold.

Photonics Online — You’ve worked in test-and-measurement, guided a startup, and held numerous leadership positions at a national institution. Given the scope of your previous experience, how much “on the job” learning will this CEO role require? 

Dr. Kent Rochford — Every new job requires a learning curve. For me, leading SPIE is a welcome opportunity to meet new people and hear new viewpoints. I’ve led R&D labs, but I’ve never headed a professional society, so there are a number of activities and practices I need to learn about. Having taken on various new roles over my career, I have learned to start by listening and learning. [Former SPIE CEO] Eugene Arthurs built a great organization, and I’m fortunate to have a lot of skilled and passionate coworkers who are getting me up to speed. But, I’ve already seen that my inclination toward empowering people who have great ideas is going to be quite applicable at SPIE.

PO — Building on that query, how do you determine where to focus your efforts? To grow and empower the optics and photonics industry in the U.S., is greater effort needed in supporting businesses, from startup to commercialization, or in lobbying Washington for policies more favorable to scientific/component/systems development here?

KR — SPIE is guided by a compelling mission, and I see my primary job as serving the optics and photonics community both nationally and internationally. For all of my career, access to timely and trustworthy technical information was absolutely critical to doing my job well. Papers were very important, but I also found that getting to conferences where I could hear the latest work, meet fellow scientists and engineers, talk with vendors, and generate collaborations, was simply invaluable.  

SPIE needs to provide this in the most impactful way possible, through effective support of authors and conference chairs, through well-organized meetings, exhibits, and short courses, and through a constant focus on our constituents’ needs. We take great pride in serving both academia and industry, trying to fulfill their unique needs, but also bringing them together to advance our field. So, supporting the needs of constituents, information-sharing, and collaboration-development to advance photonics is my focus. 

While the technical exchange occurring through our publications and events helps drive innovation, we also need to communicate the value of optics and photonics and the opportunities they provide. Part of serving the community is public advocacy, so I’ll also support these efforts. We have a number of industry programs, such as The Prism Awards and the SPIE Startup Challenge, that recognize innovation and help increase awareness of positive impacts produced by our members and others in the community. SPIE and OSA created the National Photonics Initiative (NPI) to help policymakers understand the importance of what we do. SPIE also leads efforts to help with export-control issues for various optical components, and we have a full-time lobbyist acting as a voice for industry in Washington, D.C.  I have some unique experience related to these topics, so I hope to help with advocacy, and SPIE will be steadily working to get our issues on the table on behalf of the optics and photonics community.

And, of course, SPIE is an international society so, along with the work we are doing nationally, SPIE supports the global photonics community on many fronts. In addition to hosting several international events, we support optics and photonics in multiple ways: we have representatives working with an All-Party Parliamentary Group in the UK that advocates for photonics; we are active in the Photonics21 and Horizon 2020 programs in the larger EU; and we are building relationships and growing events in Asia, particularly in China, where we are seeing a large demand for our services, as well as a rapidly-growing photonics industry.

PO — Related, the current U.S. administration increased research spending significantly in its 2018 budget (begun in October, but not fully approved until March), and appears poised to continue that trend in 2019. How do you think the optics and photonics community has taken /can take advantage of this surge, as well as improve the dialogue between scientists and policymakers?

KR — We’re hopeful that 2019 continues the positive trend. The Administration again sought deep cuts for 2019, but the House and Senate are seeking to reverse these cuts and provide small increases. It’s important to remember that the 2018 and 2019 budgets gained relief from the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 that set aside discretionary sequester caps, and that the sequester will return in 2020, so all bets are off after the 2019 budget.

Sadly, unless these increases are sustained, it’s not much of a “surge.” And this is where improving the dialogue between scientists and policymakers becomes absolutely critical. We all need to do a better job of explaining the importance of our field in terms of scientific advancement and economic growth. In my experience, most policymakers, members, and congressional staffers are diligent and thoughtful, but must sort through an increasing number of competing priorities. So, we need to make the effort to explain why photonics is important in very relatable terms, and specifically demonstrate why photonics is important to people, especially voters. NPI is working to do this, but it’s something all of us can do through letters and visits. It’s easy to discount the value of these communication efforts, but when decision-makers hear a compelling message enough times, they pay attention.

PO — Late last year, SPIE began hosting its massive digital library -- an organic, extraordinarily valuable archive of information. How has this effort progressed so far, and how will this resource be grown and optimized moving forward?

KR — The SPIE Digital Library was a substantial undertaking and I’m very impressed with the outcome.  We built our own proprietary platform for hosting and searching our collection of nearly half a million proceedings papers, journal articles, and e-books. We recently started recording conference presentations, and are adding these videos, with closed-captioning, to the Digital Library. But we’re just beginning: because we built the platform, we can readily add useful features. We’re creating new functionality, like the ability to search presentation transcripts, and including a number of enhancements to help both researchers and the librarians who manage the subscriptions. You’ll hear some very interesting news over the next months.

The net result is global visibility for people who publish with SPIE, while subscribers have access to the largest collection of technical information pertaining to optics, photonics, imaging, and all their various applications — from augmented reality and biomedical applications to video compression and zoom lenses.

PO — Your first Photonics West event as CEO is quickly coming up. What should exhibition attendees keep an eye out for at Photonics West 2019 and DCS 2019 (be it new technologies, new exhibitors, paper presentations, etc.)?

KR — I think 2019 may bring another record-breaking Photonics West in February. The Moscone Center remodel will be finished, so it will be easier to navigate without feeling like you need a hardhat to cross between buildings. Our attendees will experience two larger-than-ever exhibitions: BiOS EXPO, starting on the weekend, and Photonics West, running Tuesday through Thursday. We’re seeing record submissions for the BiOS, LASE, and OPTO conferences, with particular interest in 3D manufacturing, translational biophotonics, and applications of quantum technologies.

The Moscone renovations have opened up new space, so the exhibition is larger than ever, with pavilions representing dozens of regions and centers of excellence from around the globe.  The pent-up demand and the desire to be part of this phenomenal event really demonstrate the optimism of the industry worldwide. The exhibition doesn’t start for six months and we are already close to being sold out of booth space.  

We can now consolidate our industry program in a central area on the show floor with an Industry hub that includes AR/VR/MR activities Sunday and Monday — a follow-on from the successful launch in 2018 — and more than 30 industry events, including panels, the SPIE Startup Challenge, and market presentations. And, we’re planning for an even grander Prism Awards ceremony to celebrate the most innovative companies and products fueling the growth of the industry. 

I’ll attend my first Medical Imaging event in San Diego, followed by our Advanced Lithography in San Jose. At SPIE Defense and Commercial Sensing [DCS] — which is back in Baltimore next year, close to so many federal labs, universities, and corporate R&D centers — we will host the largest gathering of sensing and imaging technologists in the world and, for example, more infrared camera suppliers than any other event. It is exciting to see what is possible, and also to facilitate the transition of technologies into commercial applications, along with showcasing state-of-the-art detectors and systems for defense and security.

Early signs show that these events are growing, so we’re poised to support the growth we are seeing across all segments of the photonics industry around the globe. We’re putting together compelling content, and I think it will be a great year for our events.

PO — Outside of Photonics West, what challenges have you set your sights upon in your first year at the helm of SPIE? What are your long-term goals for the society?

KR — For my first year, I’m focused on understanding our operations and setting goals.  We have really great people at SPIE and we’ve undertaken an all-hands planning process that’s generated a lot of suggestions, so I have the agreeable challenge of having too many great ideas to choose from. My long-term goal is simply for SPIE to provide the most productive and beneficial activities and opportunities possible to the optics and photonics world, so that we can thrive as a community. That means we have to ensure that we’re supplying our constituents with the technical information they want, ensure that we’re providing them with the networking and collaboration opportunities they need, and ensure that we’re addressing the most relevant technical topics required to stay current. 

We have a terrific incentive to keep us focused on doing this work efficiently, effectively, and sustainably. The SPIE Board has us expend 10 percent of our operating budget on community support, which allows us to annually provide more than $4M in support of scholarships, awards, student travel, advocacy, educational grants, etc.  So, the better we do our job providing value and supporting the engineers, scientists, and executives with useful events and publications, for example, the more we can support the next generation.  It’s very motivating.

PO — Final thoughts

Best career advice you have received: 

KR — I don’t recall ever receiving explicit advice, but I’ve been fortunate to work with some great people who served as role models. My first supervisor helped me understand the importance of trying new things and not fearing failure. I’d broken some equipment and thought I was getting fired, and he instead told me that if I wasn’t making mistakes, I wasn’t trying hard enough. So I learned early on that success wasn’t about how few mistakes you made, but how you recovered from mistakes. A later mentor added fuel to the fire by telling me, “It’s better to seek forgiveness than ask permission.” I took this to heart probably more than he’d planned, but it helped open my eyes to a broader range of possibilities when you’re less risk-averse.

Favorite place your travels have taken you (be it a country or a particular facility):

KR — That’s a tough one.  I can honestly say that there are very few places I’ve travelled to that I wouldn’t revisit in a heartbeat. 

If not in this industry, what you would be doing for a living:

KR — I’d wanted to be a musician, but lacked the talent.  If I did it over again, I’d still pick photonics.  It’s so diverse and offers so much opportunity, I can’t think of anything better.