OPN asked some of its physicist advisors and contributing editors to share the stories of their own career paths and to give their advice to current optics students and young professionals. Here we highlight our Q&A with Alex Fong, senior vice president of life sciences and instrumentation at Gooch and Housego LLC in Orlando, Fla. Alex manages OPN’s Optics Innovation column, which highlights technology transfer and optics industry trends.
He holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in experimental physics from York University in Toronto and an MBA from the University of Florida. He is also a chartered engineer. Prior to joining Gooch and Housego (formerly Optronic Laboratories Inc.), Alex held senior business and technical management positions at ITT Industries, Newport Corporation and Honeywell International. He is the current president of the Florida Photonics Cluster and the founder of Cirrus Photonics.
OPN: What is the most important skill that someone can develop in graduate school?
Alex: I have my M.Sc. and an M.B.A. The most important skill I learned in graduate school was how to use resources effectively and to work with other people to approach and answer a scientific question or problem. Being able to source information, communicate and coordinate an effort will pay tremendous dividends regardless of what you end up doing in your career.
OPN: What path did you take to get to your current position?
Alex: I started out trying to decide if I ought to be doctor or a lawyer. Then I asked myself what type of work I found both interesting and, most important, a worthwhile pursuit. The litmus test I used in for myself was the question: If I were on a deserted island, what sort of training would be most useful?
I was already fascinated by physics, so I majored in that. I just kept using the same criteria along the way. I looked at education as a toolkit. At one point I decided I needed to understand the mechanics and nomenclature of the business world, so I went to business school.
One thing I’d counsel people to avoid is following the crowd. Trends come and go, but your career lasts a long time. I remember awhile back, the television show CSI was a big deal, and all of the sudden everyone wanted to be a forensic technician.
OPN: Is there anything that you wish you had done differently in your own education or career?
Alex: I still think I might have made a good doctor.
OPN: What one piece of advice would you give to someone just starting their career in science?
Alex: Keep everything in perspective and be practical and pragmatic. You may well save the world and become a Nobel laureate—but taking that into your decision-making process will stress you out needlessly. I had originally intended to be a particle physicist, but I wandered into a laser lab one day and that changed everything. Take everything you can from an opportunity or experience. Enjoy the ride.
Alex Fong is senior vice president of life sciences and instrumentation at Gooch and Housego LLC in Orlando, Fla., U.S.A. He an author and lecturer on precision light measurement, life sciences imaging, remote sensing, applied optics and lasers. He is also an active member of the American Physical Society, The Optical Society, SPIE—The International Society for Optical Engineering, the International Commission on Illumination, the Council for Optical Radiation Measurement and the Institute of Physics.