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June 24, 2002

NSF Director Rita Colwell helps dedicate the Center for Adaptive Optics

By Tim Stephens

Rita Colwell, director of the National Science Foundation (NSF), visited UCSC last week for the dedication of the NSF-funded Center for Adaptive Optics. During her visit, Colwell also met with faculty and students, toured the campus, and gave a speech on "NSF's Investment in Converging Frontiers."

Adaptive optics ushers in a new era in ground-based astronomy

Adaptive optics technology provides powerful tools for eye doctors
At the ribbon-cutting, left to right, are C. Judson King, senior vice president, UCOP; (partially hidden: Chris Le Maistre, CfAO managing director); Jerry Nelson, CfAO director; Morris Aizenman, NSF program director; Rita Colwell, NSF director; Chancellor M.R.C. Greenwood; Claire Max, CfAO associate director; Lisa Hunter, CfAO associate director. Photo: Tim Stephens
This photo shows the laser beam from inside the dome of the Shane Telescope at Lick Observatory. Photo: Laurie Hatch, Lick Observatory
Colwell said she often cites adaptive optics as an excellent example of interdisciplinary science when she gives talks around the country and abroad.

"Fundamental research to create a clearer view of the universe has spawned a new technology for the study of the human eye that could potentially benefit everyone. That's what I call a great return on our investment," Colwell said.

The multi-institutional Center for Adaptive Optics, headquartered at UCSC, was established in 1999 as an NSF Science and Technology Center focused on the advancement and application of adaptive optics technology.

Adaptive optics (AO) is used in astronomy and vision science to correct the blurring of images caused when light travels through a distorting medium. For example, turbulence in the Earth's atmosphere limits how clearly astronomers can see stars and other objects with even the largest ground-based telescopes. Similarly, internal imperfections and fluids in the eye not only affect vision but also limit the ability of doctors to get a clear view of the retina to diagnose and correct retinal defects and disease.

"In astronomy, adaptive optics can remove much of the blurring caused by the atmosphere, giving us the sharpest images ever obtained with ground-based telescopes. We are also seeing some major advances in vision science through the use of adaptive optics, and we expect to see new ophthalmic instrumentation developed in the near future," said Jerry Nelson, director of the Center for Adaptive Optics and a professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UCSC. "But there are still significant technical challenges to overcome before we can realize the full potential of this technology," he added.

At the dedication on Friday, June 21, the Center for Adaptive Optics (CfAO) celebrated recent progress in adaptive optics research and the completion of a new headquarters building on the UCSC campus. The 4,000-square-foot building on Science Hill provides offices and meeting space for faculty, visiting scientists, students, and administrators.

Andrea Ghez, an associate director of the CfAO and professor of astronomy and physics at UCLA, spoke at the dedication on adaptive optics applications in astronomy. Austin Roorda, assistant professor of optics at the University of Houston's College of Optometry, discussed adaptive optics applications in vision science. Lisa Hunter, CfAO associate director of education and human resources, discussed the center's education and outreach programs.

The Center for Adaptive Optics is funded by a $20 million, five-year grant from NSF, which is extendable for an additional five years of funding at the same level. The NSF is the single largest source of funding for research at UC Santa Cruz, currently supporting 153 active projects with total annual funding of approximately $19 million.

The Center for Adaptive Optics has 27 partner institutions, including universities, national laboratories, industry partners, and international collaborators. Five UC campuses, the California Institute of Technology, University of Chicago, University of Houston, University of Rochester, Indiana University, and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) are among the top institutions advancing the science and technology behind adaptive optics. Industry partners such as Bausch & Lomb and Lucent Technologies are working with the center to develop practical new devices and implement AO applications in health care and other fields.

Rita Colwell has been director of the NSF since 1998. She has spearheaded the agency's emphases in K-12 science and mathematics education, graduate science and engineering education and training, and increased participation of women and minorities in science and engineering. Under Colwell's leadership, the agency has supported major new initiatives in the areas of nanotechnology, biocomplexity, information technology, and the 21st century workforce.

Before taking the helm at NSF, Colwell was president of the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute and professor of microbiology at the University of Maryland. She holds a B.S. in bacteriology and an M.S. in genetics from Purdue University, and a Ph.D. in oceanography from the University of Washington.

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