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What They Do

Electronics Engineers Career Video

Insider Info

You can gaze at stars through a telescope. You can marvel at an IMAX film. You can enjoy your favorite music on CD. You are able to do all these things because of the work of optical engineers.

"An engineer, in general, is a person who takes ideas that someone else has thought of and figures out how to make these ideas work," says optical engineer Imelda De La Rue.

An optical engineer concentrates on those devices that use optics, such as cameras and telescopes. They also focus on any invention that uses lasers, such as CDs. "For example, someone may have an idea for a new type of camera lens. It is the optical engineer that would design it and make it into a working product for you to buy at your local camera store," she says.

An optical engineer, therefore, does not just know about engineering and solving problems. They need to know specifically about the physics of light and how light reacts to the outside world and materials. On a glass window, light is reflected and transmitted. On a mirror, light is completely reflected.

"Light is the part we can see, the visible spectrum. It is also part of the spectrum we can't see, including infrared and ultraviolet [rays]," says engineer Gregory Pierce. "Optical engineers use these very basic properties of both light and materials, along with other properties, to control, direct and manipulate light to behave in a certain way."

The work can range from basic research to product development. An optical engineer may take apart an object to figure out how to make it work better. Or they may build something from the ground up.

You may be designing improvements to the Hubble Space Telescope so astronomers can get better and deeper pictures of planets and space. You may work on new technologies, such as security systems that scan thumbprints to allow entry to top-secret facilities.

"The basic skill necessary to do well as an optical engineer is a good understanding of math and physics," says De La Rue. "It then depends on what aspect of optics you go into and at what level."

A person interested in detectors will need different skill sets than someone interested in optical design or image analysis, explains De La Rue.

The industries needing optical engineers can vary as well. Some of the more common industries in which an optical engineer could work include space programs, textile, oil, computer, food, agriculture, lighting and entertainment, says Pierce. Many high-tech products, such as CD-ROMs and cellular phones, also involve optics.

At a Glance

Design products that use optics and lasers

  • You'll need a good understanding of math and physics
  • The work can range from basic research to product development
  • You'll probably need at least a master's degree

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