Susan Houde-Walter '83 '87 PhD
Serving optics and the nation’s security
Susan Houde-Walter ’83 ’87 PhD, the first woman professor at The Institute of Optics, took a two-year leave of absence in 2000 to help run LaserMax Inc., the company she started with her husband Will in their basement 13 years earlier.
“At the time, LaserMax sold mainly into the semiconductor manufacturing, telecommunications, and biomedical industries, but it had a small product line of police aiming lasers,” Houde-Walter says.
“Half-way through my leave, 9/11 happened.”
The first call the company received was from the New York City Police Department. “They needed immediate help with lasers, and we provided it,” Houde-Walter says. “In the ensuing months and years, I steered the company to better supporting our law enforcement and military.”
This ability to strategically change direction will come as no surprise to those who have followed Houde-Walter’s unconventional path to leadership in the field of optics – and to becoming a role model for women in STEM.
“Susan stands as an inspiration and a very long measuring stick for all around her,” says Scott Carney, the director of The Institute of Optics. “She has elevated her profession, her community, and her country and continues to do so today.”
And it all began with a hologram.
‘Something few ever attempt’
Houde-Walter, who was born in New York City, graduated with a liberal arts degree from Sarah Lawrence College and was originally interested in graphic arts.
Then, at age 25, she saw a hologram, which uses diffracted light to create a remarkably precise, three-dimensional image of an object on a two-dimensional surface.
Though initially interested in holograms purely “as an art form,” Houde-Walter explains in an Optical Society video, she also wanted to understand the math and physics involved in creating them. “Once you get into it, it just kind of blooms,” she says.
In 1979 she enrolled at the University of Rochester’s Institute of Optics and “voraciously consumed all it offered” as she earned master’s and PhD degrees, says Carney. “Susan succeeded at something few ever attempt – pivoting from a liberal arts background to a graduate program in the hard sciences.”
As a graduate student working with Duncan Moore, Houde-Walter made important contributions to the development of gradient index (GRIN) optical elements. “This was very new at the time,” Houde-Walter says. “My first year, I got the job of writing up our results, submitting the transcript to Applied Optics – it was published—and delivering the conference presentation.” By the time she graduated with her PhD, she had authored or co-authored 8 peer-reviewed publications and a patent.
Fruitful years as a faculty member
At that point, Carney says, the Institute “realized what a unique individual and intellect Susan is,” and hired her as the first female tenure-track faculty member in its history.
During the next 18 years she excelled in all three areas deemed important to earning tenure, eventually attaining the rank of full professor.
Teaching: Houde-Walter taught many of the core optical and science courses required of undergraduate and graduate students. But she also acquainted students with workplace realities and opportunities. “When I began teaching, I observed that Optics sophomores had only faint notions of what an optical engineer actually does,” Houde-Walter says. Taking advantage of the wealth of optical companies in and around Rochester, she invited Institute alums working at those companies to come back on campus to talk about their careers. She also arranged student visits to those companies.
As coordinator of a master’s co-op program, she placed 53 students in one-year work programs in optics companies and government research centers. “This program was time-consuming to run, but popular with students and especially with industry,” she says.
Research: As a faculty member, she expanded her research into broader areas of optical materials and processes for their manufacture. This included both theoretical and experimental research involving semiconductor superlattices, laser materials, synchrotron studies of the molecular structure of multicomponent glasses, and theory of wave-guiding and optoelectronic design. Her research resulted in more than 100 peer-reviewed journal articles and invited talks.
She received a major grant from the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Traineeships Program to support PhD students in her own lab and those of other faculty members. She participated in block grants, and won independent funding for her own research exceeding $425,000.
Service: Houde-Walter served on numerous University and Institute committees and chaired the faculty advisory committee for the College Microscopy Lab for six years, securing a $260,000 NSF grant for a new field emission microscope.
Her service extended beyond the University. Her many roles with the Optical Society (OSA) included chairing the Optics and Photonics News Editorial Advisory Committee and writing popular articles like “The Edible Hologram.” She was elected to the OSA board of directors, and was elected as the organization’s president in 2005.
She promoted STEM through several activities in Rochester, including a math and science camp for girls, a laser safety course for K-12 teachers, a lecture and laboratory course in holography for rural high school students, and classroom demos at a city elementary school.
An inside look at national security
Houde-Walter left the Institute in 2005, turning her full attention to steering LaserMax toward law-enforcement and military needs.
That effort reached fruition in 2017, when the company’s consumer products division was sold to Crossman Corps, and LaserMax became LMD Power of Light Corp., doing business as LaserMaxDefense. The company produces field-ready quantum cascade lasers, solid state lasers and diode lasers for life-saving applications such as beacons, markers, aiming devices, and improved communications.
During that time, Houde-Walter immersed herself in the realities of national security.
In order to better understand the needs of her customers, for example, Houde-Walter became certified as an NRA instructor in use of basic pistols for personal protection. She traveled to Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar in 2006 on Pentagon-sponsored visits to forward operating military bases. She also spent a day on an aircraft carrier and flew in various military aircraft. Houde-Walter later observed military exercises in Panama to understand the tactical challenges of joint operations.
And she has served on both Army and Air Force science advisory boards.
Her work in this area has resulted in 23 US patents, with another 26 pending. She was recognized with the Public Service Commendation Medal from the US Department of the Army (2014) and the Commander’s Award for Public Service from the US Department of the Air Force (2016).
Other awards have included New York Photonics Entrepreneur of the Year (2017), the Keeper of the Flame Award from the National Women’s Hall of Fame (2018) and the 2019 Engineer of the Year Award from the Rochester Engineering Society. She is a fellow of the American Ceramic Society and the Optical Society (OSA).
‘You have to be part of a team’
Houde-Walter says her visits with soldiers in the field have not only provided insight into their technological needs, but “deepened my commitment to our armed forces.”
At a 2018 meeting of the Institute of Optics Industrial Associates, Houde-Walter shared some of the lessons she’s learned from her extensive travels with military clients, from serving on national security science boards, and from talking with servicemen and women of all ranks.
“Most of you probably won’t like this talk; it will be hard for some of you to relate to,” she told an audience that included Institute students and faculty, and company reps. But it was evident that many of the lessons could be applied in many walks of life – especially engineering.
“You have to work together. This is a major part of military training at all levels,” Houde-Walter said. “No one wins a battle alone. You have to be part of a team. To quote Harry Truman, ‘It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.’”