Jannick Rolland

From a dancer’s form to freeform optics

Jannick Rolland took a big chance in 1984.

She had just received her diploma—the equivalent of a master’s degree—from the Institut D’Optique in Orsay, France. But she wasn’t sure whether she should pursue her aptitude for optics—or her talent for dance.

She wanted to come to the United States to become more fluent in English. But she was three points shy of passing an oral language exam to enter the University of Arizona.

She got on a plane anyway. She landed in Tucson, met with the professor in charge of admission at the College of Optical Sciences, who convinced the admission office that her English was good enough to enter the Optics graduate program.

She was in, and within months she was encouraged to join the PhD program in optical engineering.

It was the turning point in a career that has established Rolland as a pre-eminent researcher and innovator – and an outstanding mentor and role model for women in STEM.

A pioneer in freeform optics

Rolland is now the Brian J. Thompson Professor of Optical Engineering at the University of Rochester.

She co-founded and directs the Center for Freeform Optics, a federally supported collaboration involving Rochester, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and over 20 companies and research institutes. The goal is to advance an emerging technology that uses lenses and mirrors with freeform surfaces to create optical devices that are lighter, more compact, and more effective than ever before.

With her former PhD student Cristina Canavesi, she is also cofounder and chief technology officer of LightopTech, a startup commercializing one of Rolland’s inventions. The portable device uses a microscope with a liquid lens to image cells just below the surface of the skin, cornea, and other tissues. Among many possible applications, the device is targeted to help surgeons determine if they’ve successfully removed all of a skin cancer, without having to wait for the results of a traditional biopsy.

Rolland has 37 patents to her credit, and more than 180 peer-reviewed publications. She is a fellow of the Optical Society (OSA) and SPIE – the international professional society for optics and photonics technology. She received the 2014 OSA David Richardson Medal and the 2017 Edmund A. Hajim Outstanding Faculty Award.

In 2018 Rolland was listed among eight women pioneers in augmented and virtual realityby the organizers of the world’s largest AR/VR conference and expo. The next year she was named the 2019 Alumna of the Year by the Wyant College of Optical Sciences at the University of Arizona.

Most recently, she was named the recipient of OSA’s 2020 Joseph Fraunhofer Award/Robert M. Burley Prize for her creative and innovative applications in several fields of optical engineering, including:

  • designing the optics for SPOT4, a satellite in orbit from 2008-2013 to monitor the earth
  • developing the mathematics to describe the “lumpy background” noise that plagues medical images, which gave rise to a widely-adopted method to assess image quality in diagnostic instruments
  • inventing Gabor-domain optical coherence microscopy for high-definition 3D imaging.

Optics or dance?

Rolland may have had early doubts about pursuing optics as a career. But in retrospect, perhaps it is not surprising that she did.

When her mother took her at age 16 to a Parisian theater to see a production of Molière, it wasn’t the play that interested Rolland, but the special effects.

“During the whole play I was watching the back of the room, seeing how they used light and sound to create the play experience,” Rolland recalls.

At the end of the play she pointed at the back of the room and told her mom, “this is what I want to do.”

Her father, despite a lack of formal education, was “naturally talented in physics.” So was his daughter, who showed an equal aptitude for math and computer science.

Rolland finished valedictorian of her class in a two-year physics program at the Institut Universitaire de Technologie in Orsay, and in the top 10 percent of her class at the Institut d’Optique.

So why the doubts? For one thing, Rolland also excelled in ballet, and eventually progressed to modern dance and jazz. Her parents were told she was talented enough to dance professionally.

Moreover, some of the instruction at the Institut d’Optique had been “a little too much ‘push button’ for me,” Rolland says. “We were not encouraged to ask questions outside the box, just solve the problem in the typical way, just get the results. I was hungry for more.”

She found it at the University of Arizona’s Optical Sciences Center. “I was surrounded by researchers who were very excited about what they were doing, and really engaged in it,” Rolland says. “And the professors encouraged us to ask questions of all sorts. It took me awhile to adjust to this new kind of culture. But I really liked it.”

Her PhD thesis was titled “Factors Influencing Lesion Detection in Medical Imaging.”

That’s how optics won out over dancing.

Working ‘at the boundaries’ of optics

Postdoctoral and faculty postings followed at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Central Florida’s College of Optics and Photonics (CREOL).

During this time, Rolland was often working “at the boundaries” of her field, collaborating with computer scientists, for example, on the design of head-worn augmented and virtual reality devices. These relationships helped her develop new skills and unique areas of expertise.

However, by “working at the boundaries,” she risked alienating colleagues in her own field, and even her chances of gaining tenure, Rolland says. So, she had to walk a careful tightrope.

After creating the technology for her liquid lens device at CREOL, she came to Rochester to join the faculty of the Institute of Optics in 2009.

The University’s Medical Center, just a five-minute walk away, offered her a chance to collaborate with researchers on refining the biomedical applications of the device. And Rochester’s regional reputation as a center of optical manufacturing also attracted her.

“I felt the ecosystem would be better for what I am doing, and in fact, that’s what has happened,” Rolland says.

For the “first time in my life,” Rolland says, she finds herself surrounded by colleagues “who share common interests with me.”

Where before she worked alone, she now has collaborators who have been indispensable in helping her launch the Center for Freeform Optics.

And starting LighTopTech.

Promoting women in engineering

Rolland and Canavesi say they never planned to be entrepreneurs.

“My only plan was to get the technology we had been developing out into the world,” Rolland says.

Initially, they tried licensing the technology to companies. However, advanced discussions with two companies eventually proved fruitless.

“By that point, we felt the technology was ready to go, so we said, ‘Let’s do it,’” Canavesi says.

Subsequently, more than $1 million in NSF Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) funding enabled her and Canavesi to accelerate the development of their technology and address all the engineering aspects of the system.

At the LighTopTech website, they proudly identify their company as “woman-owned.” That in itself is noteworthy given the continuing underrepresentation of women in engineering and technical fields.

“To have two women scientists as cofounders of a company is unusual,” Rolland says. “It’s a fantastic example for other women to realize their potential as well.”

Canavesi says she was very fortunate to join Rolland’s research group. “Through this journey I’ve been constantly inspired by her as a scientist and also as a woman in science promoting women engineers.”

Rolland has done that by mentoring many young women like Canavesi in her courses and lab. She has also given motivational pitches globally to young women in science. Rolland is also a founding board member of WiSTEE CONNECT, an organization that connects women in science, technology, engineering and entrepreneurship.

She served on the OSA Rapid Action Committee (RAC) on Women in Optics in 2016-2017, guiding OSA in the opportunities and support it provides for its women members. She has also volunteered on a University of Rochester committee that looked at developing a process for achieving salary equity for women in the engineering, science and art disciplines.

“Communicating experiences people haven’t had before”

Rolland no longer takes to the dance floor. But she still likes to watch dancers.

“Dance is an amazing, nonverbal way of expressing yourself,” Rolland says. “It gives you a way to convey feelings and emotions that words cannot express.”

So do some of her current projects.

Her work in designing freeform optics for AR/VR glasses, for example, “is another way to communicate experiences that people haven’t had before, so there’s a commonality in all of this.”

In 1984, her professors inquired if she might be interested in pursuing a career in computer science.

“I might have gone into that as well,” Rolland says. “I was good at it. But at the time, all the news stories said there was no future in it.”

She chuckles about that now. And, no, she has no regrets about that career decision either.

Suffice it to say that her two grown sons are both computer scientists.

“And where do you think they got that?” Rolland says.