By RYAN CRAY
Niagara College’s Photonics program is not every student’s first choice. The discipline is not yet well-known, and it has had trouble recruiting young minds in the past.
Nevertheless, Alex McGlashlan, the program’s professor and co-ordinator, is working tirelessly to change that.
"I really believe in the program," the lean, lab coat-draped McGlashlan says. "That’s why I’m here teaching instead of out there working."
Photonics is the study of the use and manipulation of light. Introduced as a program at Niagara College in 2001, it is divided between the Photonics Engineering Technology and Technician programs. Advanced Lasers is also offered.
The applications of photonics are endless. Nearly anything involving light has been touched by photonics in some way, from computer screens and light bulbs to laser cutters and fibre-optic wires.
McGlashlan says that is one of the advantages of the program. Its related industries are both diverse and growing rapidly.
"It’s good for the graduates. They get into the area they like most," he says. "They are going to get a good-paying job they love and enjoy."
However, the appeal isn’t just about the money or the bevy of job offers his graduates receive.
McGlashlan cites the work being done in the biomedical field as proof that photonics can be used to "better the human condition."
The 20 to 30 students who enter the Photonics program each year receive a unique experience, as the courses at Niagara College are the only ones of their kind in Ontario. There are similar programs in the United States, but they are limited in number.
Not limited, however, is the demand for graduates. A recent study revealed the need for photonics technicians in North America to be in the thousands. Compare that to the fact that only six to 15 students at Niagara graduate as technicians each year.
"Really, that’s how big the disparity is," says McGlashlan.
Most students who come into the program have at least a passing interest in science, but McGlashlan is quick to stress that you "don’t have to be a genius" to work in photonics.
The program attracts a wide variety of students, from wildly varying backgrounds.
McGlashlan’s background? Agriculture.
"I’m an eighth-generation farmer," the Pelham-born professor says. "I used to own chickens."
As for photonic applications within agriculture, consider that McGlashlan himself has worked on everything from perfecting laser-pruning techniques to using light to detect symptoms of sickness in plants.
McGlashlan says that any feelings of jealousy from seeing a former student take a prestigious, high-paying job are quickly overrun by the pride of seeing that student succeed.
"That’s the payoff," he says, after mentioning one of his graduates is working at NASA. "This program is all about the students."
The students themselves seem pleased. Ryan Bradbury, 24, says the program’s sense of "community" and "peer-support" greatly appeal to him.
Will Hourigan, 33, says the sophisticated technology students get to work with is "fantastic."
As for McGlashlan, photonics remains his passion.
"I’ve got big dreams for Photonics," he says.
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