National Science Foundation director Rita Colwell to visit UC Santa Cruz for dedication of the Center for Adaptive Optics on April 26

Rita Colwell, director of the National Science Foundation (NSF), will visit the University of California, Santa Cruz, in April for the dedication of the NSF-funded Center for Adaptive Optics. During her visit, Colwell will also meet with UCSC faculty and students, tour the campus, and give a speech on "Research Trends and Opportunities at NSF."

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 an unstable 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 of stars, planets, and galaxies ever obtained with ground-based telescopes. But there are still significant technical challenges to overcome before we can realize the full potential of this technology," said Jerry Nelson, director of the Center for Adaptive Optics and a professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UCSC.

"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," Nelson added.

At the dedication on April 26, the Center for Adaptive Optics will celebrate recent progress in adaptive optics and the completion of a new headquarters building on the UC Santa Cruz campus. The 4,000-square-foot building on Science Hill provides offices and meeting space for faculty, visiting scientists, students, and administrators.

The center has 28 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, 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.

Researchers affiliated with the center have installed adaptive optics systems on major telescopes at the Lick Observatory on Mt. Hamilton, CA, and the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii. These AO systems use a known source of light as a reference beacon to measure atmospheric distortions, then remove the distortion by bouncing the light off a deformable mirror. The measurement and correction of distortions is repeated hundreds of times per second.

A major advance has been the use of a laser system to create a "virtual" guide star in the upper atmosphere as the reference light-source. A laser guide star system developed at LLNL was recently installed on the Keck II Telescope. One of the challenges for the future will be to devise AO systems that can use multiple guide stars, Nelson said.

In vision science, researchers have developed prototype instruments that show tremendous promise for clinical use. Potential applications include improvements in diagnosis and monitoring of retinal diseases, better contact lenses, and more accurate laser surgery procedures. The current challenges are to bring down the cost of the AO systems for vision science and make them durable and reliable enough for routine clinical use.

The center's education and outreach programs are another major part of its activities. Focusing on underrepresented groups of students from high school to graduate level, the programs are designed to attract and retain a new generation of scientists and engineers. Professional development courses and mentoring programs are offered to graduate students and postdoctoral researchers.

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.

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.