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He makes optics look easy

 October 12, 2020
Doran Teverovksy
Doran Teverovsky is remaining at the University of Rochester for his PhD to work with Julie Bentley and the research group of David Williams at the Center for Visual Science.

Mention Doran Teverovsky ’20 at The Institute of Optics or at the Center for Visual Science, and you’ll hear reactions like these:

“Truly exceptional,” says Julie Bentley, associate professor of optics, who has taught Teverovsky, hired him as a TA, and will now be his PhD advisor.

“Phenomenal,” says David Williams, the William G. Allyn Professor of Medical Optics, director of the Center for Visual Science, and one of the world’s pre-eminent vision scientists.

“Off-scale smart, a wonderful kid, with an incredible personal integrity -- exactly the sort of student we want in the Institute (of Optics),” says Institute director Scott Carney. “It doesn't take very long into a conversation with Doran to realize you're talking to someone special.”

“I’ll always remember how willing he is to help others, even when there’s no personal gain for him,” adds Erin Sumfleth ’20, a classmate and fellow optics major.  “I don't think I could have made it through the program without him.”

Optics is regarded as one of the toughest undergraduate degrees on the River Campus, with its heavy emphasis on physics and math. Teverovsky made it look easy.

He hit the ground running his first year, won the Institute’s Fujimara Prize for the sophomore who “represents the Institute’s values of academic excellence, research, and campus citizenship,” was doing independent research by his third year, and then was co-recipient of this year’s Kevin Thompson Award, given to students who “demonstrate a keen interest in optical design and/or metrology.”

By the time he graduated with his BS in optics this spring, he had already completed half the coursework towards his PhD as well.

And now, as a beginning grad student, he is redesigning and updating the adaptive optics that Williams and his colleagues at the Center for Visual Science have already used to transform eye care.

At stake: major federal funding, and an ambitious research agenda that will hopefully find a cure for the diseases that cause blindness.

Drawn to science, math at an early age

Doran's pictureTeverovsky, who is from Acton, Mass., says his father, a mathematician for MathWorks, and his mother, an electronic textiles consultant, “always supported me in pursuing anything I wanted. I was very much drawn to math and science as a child, and it just sort of progressed from there. There was never any moment where it occurred to me that ‘oh, I want to be a scientist’ or anything like that. It was just always that way.”

His older sister Danika ’16 graduated from the University of Rochester with a degree in brain and cognitive sciences, so “I knew about the University before I came here, and was also aware of The Institute of Optics,” Teverovsky says.

Optics appealed to him “as a good intersection of my interests in math and physics, and because of its engineering applications,” he adds.

A rigorous academic program at Acton-Boxborough Regional High School helped Teverovsky enter Rochester with plenty of advance credits. That, and the flexibility offered by Rochester’s open curriculum, enabled him to get a head start on taking optics courses his first year.

One of his second-year classes was taught by Jannick Rolland, the Brian J. Thompson Professor of Optical Engineering, and director of the Center for Freeform Optics (CeFO), a collaboration between Rochester, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and 19 companies and research institutes that seeks to advance the use of lenses and mirrors with freeform surfaces to create optical devices that are lighter, more compact, and more effective than ever before.    When Rolland put out a call for undergraduates who might be interested in working in her lab, Teverovsky stepped forward and was accepted.

“That was a really good experience, because after a while she was essentially giving me my own projects, graduate student level projects, that I was in charge of, and was being directly supervised by her,” Teverovsky says. “I also got a lot of experience interfacing with others in academia and industry which definitely improved my communication skills.” The projects mostly involved metrology – measuring or figuring out how to measure more accurately a variety of optical components for projects being done by CeFO.

For example, Teverovsky first worked with graduate student Jeremy Goodsell on performing optical metrology of freeform components for Ultrasurf, a commercial instrument from Optipro, a CeFO member company. When Goodsell left for an internship at the end of the spring semester 2019, “Doran stepped to the plate and led the project, beyond expectations, until COVID19 hit in spring 2020,” Rolland says. “Even then, he wonderfully documented the work he had completed once the semester ended. Seeing Doran remain at the University of Rochester and decide to focus on lens design for the next generation of instruments for Visual Science is very exciting." 

For his senior thesis, Teverovsky worked with Jennifer Kruschwitz, an assistant professor of optics and the Institute’s color and coating expert, on designing and testing a color camera calibration artifact. A major part of the project involved actually fabricating the artifact at URnano, the University’s clean room.

However, when COVID-19 forced the campus to close in March for the rest of the semester, fabrication was no longer possible. Like many other engineering seniors, Teverovsky had to pivot. “Basically, I wrote up my thesis, to the point that I could, in terms of what we had done in designing the artifact, with a more extensive theory section than originally planned.”

In a Facebook posting at the time, Teverovsky wrote that “As with nearly every other student, the end of this year and the end of my undergraduate degree did not go as expected. I have mostly come to terms with this fact. While I will not have the commencement I have been planning on, I have been able to have many very meaningful moments with friends over the past several months, and ultimately those will mean more to me than a ceremony would have.”

Always time to help others

While at Rochester, Teverovsky has managed to find time to participate in the University’s club ultimate frisbee team, The Piggies, and play as a percussionist with River Campus student orchestras.

More recently, though, he has devoted his free time to furthering a passion that began when he visited a circus as a child: flying trapeze. Starting last fall, Teverovsky began managing the trapeze program for Roc City Circus, a Rochester circus school.

“I am in charge of training, curriculum and coaching, and safety,” Teverovsky says. This takes up 10 to 20 hours a week.

But he still finds time to drop whatever he’s doing to help other students. “There’s a joke that I’m sort of the de facto TA (teaching assistant) for any class I’ve ever taken. So, sometimes friends will ask me a question about something they vaguely remember learning about a year ago, or about something that they’re stuck on in a class we are in together,” Teverovsky says.

“I am very much of the belief that it’s important to give back,” he says. “Everyone has something to offer in terms of teaching, whether it’s their struggles, which can help inform other people how to handle their own struggles, or their successes, which can be used to help others in much the same way.

“Otherwise, you’re just being selfish with the knowledge that you have gained.”

Erin Sumfleth, he is quick to add, “certainly would have made it through without me.”

A positive legacy

Many students who pursue a PhD do so at a university different from the one where they were undergraduates. So why did Teverovsky decide to remain at Rochester?

A big part of the reason is Julie Bentley, an internationally recognized expert in lens design. “I’ve been closely interacting with her, in some capacity, every semester that I’ve been here, whether as a student in her classes, or serving as a TA for her,” Teverovsky says. “There’s a lot that I can learn from her, and we get along really well.”

Bentley, an instructional track faculty member, does not regularly serve as an advisor for PhD students the way research faculty members do. However, when she agreed to take on Teverovsky, she was able to offer him a potential dissertation project right up his alley.

Bentley recently began collaborating with Williams and his colleagues at the Center for Visual Science on an ambitious next stage for their research, which has already pioneered the use of adaptive optics to image individual cells in the retina, for example, and enabled transformative advances in eye care, such as Lasik surgery.

Williams and William Merigan, professor of ophthalmology, are now poised to combine new advances in molecular biology with next generation adaptive optics to better understand the role of the retina’s ganglion cells in processing visual signals for the brain. They have also come up with a way to stimulate those cells to create their own visual signals when the retina’s rods and cones are irreparably damaged by disease. This could potentially cure diseases that cause blindness.

Bentley arranged a virtual “sit down” with Williams, and Teverovsky is now redesigning and updating the lab’s optical systems, including prototypes that will be submitted in applications for the federal funding needed to carry about the center’s ambitious research agenda.

“From day one, I have really enjoyed working with the whole group of ARIA (Advanced Retinal Imaging Alliance) that they’ve put together,” Teverovsky says. “They’re very kind, knowledgeable, and its’ been a lot of fun working with them in the lab.”

Williams, he adds, “is so grounded and down to earth about all of it. Having conversations with him, you wouldn’t know how important he is in his field.”

And after Teverovsky receives his PhD?

He isn’t sure. “I could see myself going out into industry, or going into industry and coming back to academia, or staying here, or even starting a research group at some other university, to help spread optics around,” Teverovsky says.

“There’s a lot of things I would like to do, so at some point I will have to start picking and choosing what’s most important.”

Whatever his ultimate path, Teverovsky wants to leave behind positive legacy.

Judging from the tributes he’s received so far-- from faculty and students alike--he’s already creating one.