Optical and Photonic Solutions Blog


Employee Profile: Meet Katherine Calabro, LightTools R&D Engineer – Thoughts on Pursuing Optics, Leadership Roles in the Industry, and Balancing Family Life

Katherine Calabro

Meet Katherine Calabro, senior R&D engineer at Synopsys, who works with the LightTools team and specializes in scattering and receiver analysis features. She has been involved in the international optics society SPIE as well as the Optical Society of America (OSA) in leadership roles at the Boston University OSA/SPIE student chapter, the New England OSA Local Section, and on the board of Membership and Education for all of OSA. She will be serving as the Chair of that board starting in 2022. She has also volunteered with both OSA and SPIE reviewing grant and award applications. In our interview, she tells us how she chose optics as a career and shares her advice for those interested in entering the field.

How did you decide to pursue optics as a career?

I was born and raised in Rochester, NY and had parents who worked at Kodak (not in optics, but as chemists). In high school, I was always highly interested in math and science classes. I was lucky enough to have computer science classes offered at my school too, which turned out to be my favorite classes. Had I known at the time I would end up in the field of optics, I would have more seriously considered attending University of Rochester, but was too anxious to get out and explore other parts of the country. Even so, it seems that some interest in optics seeped in, perhaps via osmosis.

I entered college with an interest in studying engineering, but was undecided on a specific field. I had a very influential professor who mentored me throughout my undergraduate and master’s degrees. With him, I learned and worked on computational modeling projects that studied theoretical optics and photonics applications.

I decided to continue onto a graduate degree in engineering, but this time I interested in working on more ‘real-world’ applications, and I gravitated toward the work being done in biomedical optics. The research I completed for my PhD involved the modeling of light through biological tissue, with the application of making spectroscopic measurements to diagnose disease; specifically, using a small probe device to measure backscattered reflectance measurements on tumors, analyzing the spectra for its optical properties, and using that information to make real-time diagnostic predictions about malignancy. That work also involved a significant amount of computational modeling, which I designed and wrote specifically for our research application. By the time I graduated, I realized that all roads kept leading me back toward both optics and computational modeling. Thanks to some fortunate networking, I was introduced to Synopsys (at the time, Optical Research Associates). It seemed, and has proven to be, a great fit for my skills and interests.

What are some organizations you are involved in?

I was introduced to the OSA and SPIE organizations in graduate school, and volunteered in leadership roles at both the Boston University OSA/SPIE student chapter, and also with the local New England Section of the OSA (NES/OSA). In addition to helping with general logistics, I was also very involved in the educational outreach opportunities organized through NES/OSA. This work led to more volunteer opportunities with both OSA and SPIE on national and global levels. I have volunteered to review educational grants for the SPIE, and I have been a member of the Membership and Education Board at OSA since 2013. Starting in 2022, I will be the Chair of that Board.

What would be your advice for someone getting into this field?

The optics community is relatively small and close-knit, as compared to some other technical fields. The advantage of this is that networking can be very productive. Especially by taking advantage of networks formed around local sections of the OSA, it can be a very efficient way to meet academic and industry professionals. Those relationships can, and should, be fostered throughout one’s educational and professional journey.

Another advantage of pursuing a career in optics is in the breadth of applications. Optics is foundational to everything from astrophysics to medical diagnostics and consumer products. Light is the primary way we observe and interact with our environment, and so it is natural that there will be a need for optics knowledge in nearly everything we do. On the other hand, because there are so many different opportunities for optical engineers, it is not always trivial to identify those opportunities when they are spread out across all areas of industry, government, and academia. Recognize that a knowledge of optics is a highly translatable skill, so be adventurous and open minded when seeking out opportunities.

What has it been like working during the pandemic? What are some things you do in your spare time?

Like everyone else, adjusting to life during the pandemic was an unexpected challenge. This was particularly challenging as a parent, needing to balance the simultaneous needs of work, schooling, childcare, meal preparation, and (constant) housework. I feel fortunate to work for an organization, and with coworkers, who are extremely supportive and genuinely concerned about our personal wellbeing. That compassion certainly made the pandemic more manageable. As we start getting back to “normal,” I will certainly not miss the endless Zoom meetings, fights over school assignments, or an attention span limited to 10-minute increments. However, I will miss my constant wardrobe of loungeware and time spent with my family instead of in a car commuting.

With the limited amount of time when I am not working or caring for kids, I recognize how important it is to foster personal interests (now more than ever). In that rare spare time, I am a photography enthusiast, home renovation warrior, and amateur singer in a local band.