Julie Bentley ’90, ’96 (PhD)

Refused to bow to gender bias

Julie Bentley ’90, ’96 (PhD) was the valedictorian of her high school class at Panama Central in New York’s rural Southern Tier.

Three of the top five students in the class were also women. They were advised to “essentially get high-end secretarial jobs,” Bentley says. “I was told in high school I shouldn’t try to be an engineer because I was a girl.”

The fifth student, a male, was advised to take mechanical engineering at Penn State University and dropped out of engineering after only one year.

“That’s my story,” Bentley says.

Except it didn’t end there.

Bentley—who “was always really good at math and science,” who “used to do high school math for fun in the fourth grade”—wasn’t about to become a “data entry person,” she says. “I knew I could do engineering.”

In fact, she has excelled at it—as a University of Rochester undergraduate and graduate student; as an optical designer and commercial technology manager in industry; and now as an associate professor of optics at the University’s Institute of Optics and a private consultant.

Bentley is recognized by peers worldwide for her expertise in designing lenses and optical systems. She is also an award-winning teacher, whose courses in optical design at The Institute are highly sought-after.

It is ironic: Once advised to not become an engineer because she was a woman, Bentley is now inspiring young men and women to do just that. “I learned more during her optics class than any other I have taken,” one of her students observed. Writes another: “You have inspired me to pursue a career in lens design and for that I cannot thank you enough.”

‘Highest distinction’ as a student

When Bentley enrolled at the University of Rochester in 1986, she initially intended to major in chemical engineering. “In high school, we had one science teacher, and that teacher was good in chemistry,” Bentley says. “So, of all the sciences, that was the only one I felt I had really been taught.”

However, the job outlook in chemical engineering was bleak at the time. Eastman Kodak, the Rochester film manufacturing giant, “was laying off chemical engineers left and right,” Bentley recalls. “But the defense industry was hiring people in optics, picking up people in limos and giving them job offers like you wouldn’t believe. Having grown up with little money, I wanted to make sure I had a job when I left college.”

The rumor that optics was the hardest major on campus simply enhanced its appeal for Bentley.

Despite working 30 to 40 hours a week at three different jobs on campus, Bentley earned her BS in optics with “highest distinction” and was elected Phi Beta Kappa her junior year. She continued to maintain a 4.0 GPA while earning her master’s and PhD. Her thesis, supervised by Duncan Moore, focused on the integration of the design and manufacture of gradient-index optical systems. Her numerous awards and scholarships included a prestigious Sproull Fellowship. She was later named a Sproull Distinguished Alumna in 2007.

A knack for teaching

When she graduated, Bentley was ready for a change of scenery. “I grew up in a tiny town, and I wanted to go to a big city and work for a big company,” she says. She took a job with Hughes Aircraft (now Raytheon) in Los Angeles, designing optical systems for the defense industry. “I lived on the beach, and loved it,” she says.

Two years later, she was back in Rochester so her husband could pursue his law practice in New York State. She took a job at Tropel, a world leader in customized precision optical instrumentation, founded by Robert Hopkins, a former Institute of Optics director and faculty member.

Within six months of starting at Tropel, Bentley got a call from The Institute. Duncan Moore was on leave for a two-year stint as a White House science advisor for the Clinton Administration. Would Bentley consider teaching Moore’s lens design class?

“I used to be terrified of giving presentations,” Bentley says, “so my first reaction was ‘Why on earth would I get up in front of a bunch of students to teach a class?’ But I’ll try anything once.”

She discovered she actually enjoyed it. “Students ask me things I have never thought of before,” she says. “So, it’s a learning experience for me as well.”

She started out as an adjunct, teaching a class at night for one semester every other year. Then she began teaching the course every year. Then she was asked to take on another course. Eventually she was teaching every semester while working full time at Tropel—and doing a lot of work-related travel for the company. “I was in charge of the commercial technology group, which meant I was flying to Japan, China, Europe, and all over the US, working with companies on new technology,” Bentley says.

Eventually, after Corning bought Tropel, Bentley was ready for another change.

She approached Wayne Knox, director of the Institute, with a novel idea. “I told him I didn’t want to do research, but I would really like to continue teaching in a full-time capacity and start my own company.”

Knox pulled strings and appointed Bentley to the Institute’s first non-tenure track faculty of practice position in 2009.

Sharing workplace knowledge

It has worked to everyone’s benefit. Bentley teaches full time for nine months a year, consulting part time during the school year, full time during the summer – but still finding time to teach summer short courses for optics professionals and for a photonics camp for local high school students.

 “I always have more (consulting) work than I need,” primarily helping companies with the design of lenses and optical systems, she says. This could involve a rifle scope one day, an endoscope for inspecting nuclear plants the next, and a scope for cancer detection the day after that.

“I bring that knowledge back to my students,” she adds. “Staying in touch with where industry is going keeps my lecture material up to date. I also have students pick their own design projects, and it is not uncommon for their projects ideas to overlap with a future consulting project, so it's a two-way synergy that works really well.”

Several of her students have won awards for the projects they design in her class. Bentley in turn received the University’s prestigious Goergen Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching in 2014. “Her expertise helps distinguish The Institute of Optics as the primary place in the United States to learn lens design,” then director Xi-Cheng Zhang wrote in support of her nomination. Added PhD candidate Matthew Bergkoetter: “as a practicing lens design and consultant with more than 20 years of experience, Professor Bentley brings into the classroom unparalleled insight into state-of-the-art tools and methods in the industry.”

For example, Bentley makes a point of distinguishing between the equations students need to memorize, and the ones they simply need to know about. “Students these days don’t always like to memorize things because so much information is at their fingertips. But when you work in engineering, you can move so much faster from point A to point C if you don’t have to stop and look up B.”

Recognition from her peers

Bentley’s contributions have not been limited to the classroom and her work in industry. She has played an active role in SPIE, the international professional society for optics and photonics technology. She recently served on its board of directors, and from 2012-2017 was co-chair of OPTIFAB, North America’s largest optical manufacturing conference and exhibition, which is organized by SPIE and the American Precision Optics Manufacturers Association.

In addition to numerous peer-reviewed journal articles, she co-authored Designing Optics Using CODE V (SPIE Press) with Donald O’Shea, professor emeritus of Georgia Institute of Technology.  When O’Shea realized his previous textbook, Elements of Optical Design, was out of date, he says, he drafted four chapters for the new book, then approached Bentley about collaborating. “She has practical design experience that I, as an academic, could never hope to have.”

Life has come full circle for Bentley.

The woman who was advised in high school not to go into engineering was elected a Fellow of SPIE in 2012 for developing new courses in lens design with real-world student projects. She was elected a fellow of the Optical Society (OSA) in 2019 for her “outstanding international leadership in optical design, shown through international conference organization,” for her “innovative optical design methods,” and for her “unparalleled level of excellence in teaching and mentoring.”

In Fall 2019, her oldest daughter enrolled in chemical engineering at the University of Rochester, just as Bentley did 36 years before. Her daughter faces much better prospects of getting a job in the field.

“At least I can give her better advice than my guidance counselor gave me,” Bentley says.

She is incredulous that, even today, “there’s this expectation that girls can’t do math.”

Her advice to young women who hear that: Don’t accept it. Prove them wrong.

Just like Bentley did.

Written by Bob Marcotte, the senior communications officer for science, engineering, and research at the University of Rochester. You can reach him at bmarcotte@ur.rochester.edu.