When Peter Delfyett first fell in love with science during elementary school, he imagined he would grow up to be a paleontologist. Instead, the Pegasus Professor of optics and photonics has spent his career developing futuristic technology.
From lasers that are used to cut Gorilla Glass for Samsung phones to fiber-optic cable technology that allows the internet to operate more efficiently, Delfyett’s work has been making waves for over three decades. And now he’s received one of the highest honors in the scientific community as one of 106 inductees this year to the National Academy of Engineering.
Watch Delfyett’s induction into the National Academy of Engineering Saturday, Oct. 2, at noon.
“UCF is clearly a national and international leader when it comes to optics, lasers, and photonics. Professor Delfyett, through his amazing work, has proven that he is one of the very best laser and photonics researchers in the world,” UCF President Alexander N. Cartwright says. “This recognition honors his many contributions to society throughout his career and his leadership that has helped develop UCF’s culture of innovation and discovery. I know he will continue to have an impact on the university and inspire his colleagues and our students to reach for the stars.”
A Monumental Honor
Established in 1964, the NAE’s network of more than 2,300 members work together to advance the United States’ global reputation by providing guidance to policymakers and government institutions on decisions related to engineering and technology.
UCF now has eight faculty members who are a part of the NAE, but Delfyett has the distinct honor of being the first to be inducted while a current faculty member at the university. While the seven other faculty members were inducted before joining UCF’s College of Engineering and Computer Science, he is also the first UCF faculty member from the College of Optics and Photonics (CREOL) to join the organization.
“This is very special to me, not only because it is the highest honor that can be bestowed on a scientist or engineer, but all of the work that is being recognized has been done here at UCF with graduate students,” Delfyett says. “I know this is something UCF has been wanting to grow toward, which is a really difficult task, and I’m honored to help the university fulfill this part of its vision.”
Becoming an NAE member is a monumental accomplishment in part because of how difficult it is to be elected into the organization. New members must be nominated by current members and are evaluated on a range of critera, including scientific and real-world impact, involvement with professional societies and major awards.
“This is very special to me, not only because it is the highest honor that can be bestowed on a scientist or engineer, but all of the work that is being recognized has been done here at UCF with graduate students.” — Peter Delfyett, Pegasus Professor
Delfyett’s induction, which will take place at the NAE’s annual meeting in October, means other current UCF faculty could be joining this rank in the near future.
Over the years, Delfyett has been awarded numerous honors — such as the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers in 1996 and the American Physical Societies’ Edward Bouchet Award in 2011 — but his most recent accolades include the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ 2020 William Streifer Scientific Achievement Award and the 2021 Arthur L. Schawlow Prize in Laser Sciences from the American Physical Society. He is also a fellow of the International Society for Optics and Photonics and the Optical Society of America.
For M.J. Soileau, a university distinguished professor of optics and photonics and former director of CREOL, it’s as easy to see why Delfyett was elected as it was to make the decision to hire him 27 years ago.
“With Peter, it’s a monumental task [to summarize his impact] because you take any dimension of what a faulty member is supposed to be and he has excelled at it,” says Soileau, the former vice president for research at UCF for 17 years who describes Delfyett’s most recent honor as a phase change for UCF.
“I think anyone who encounters Professor Delfyett would have the same impression and that is one of enthusiasm and boundless energy in the pursuit of science and engineering, and he is just a really nice guy, someone you want to be around,” Soileau says. “Those were my first impressions of him, and they’ve been accurate over the years and then some.”
Before Joining UCF
That positive first impression was also informed by Delfyett’s strong background in academics and the industry.
While an undergraduate at the City College of New York, the Queens native was searching through a catalog when he found a description for an introduction to lasers course that he says seemed interesting.
“The description said it would introduce me to concepts of fiber optics communications and my thinking was ‘This is so far out, so futuristic, if I pursue a Ph.D. in this field, this will carry me through my career,’ ” he says.
After earning a bachelor’s in electrical engineering in 1981, he pursued a master’s in the same discipline from the University of Rochester before earning an M.Phil and doctorate from The Graduate School & University Center of the City University of New York in 1987 and 1988, where his research focused on ultrafast spectroscopy. He then began working at Bell Communication Labs, which was among the most competitive technology research companies at the time.
When Delfyett joined UCF in 1993, the Center for Research in Eletro-Optics and Lasers, or CREOL, had only been on campus for six years. Seven years later it would become the School of Optics and then in 2004 it expanded to the College of Optics and Photonics, which is one of the top programs of its kind in the world and began offering an undergraduate degree in photonic science and engineering in 2013.
Scientific and Economic Impact
While CREOL remains a small college, with 278 current students, the impact of the research conducted and talent fostered there is exponential.
“With each increase of stature and visibility [of optics and photonics education and research] within the university is a statement of the impact CREOL is having not only with the scientific community and internationally, but also with the economic sector of Central Florida,” Delfyett says.
Delfyett’s personal contributions to the base of scientific knowledge include 44 patents that apply directly to the advancement of everyday life. Many of these discoveries use lasers for precision timing, fiber optics communication, and signal processing, which helps information move faster on the internet and in devices such as cell phones, laptops, tablets and autonomous vehicles. Another major group of patents is related to the generation and amplification of very short pulses of light using semi-conductor lasers that help build smartphones, medical stents for surgical procedures and micro-precision holes to make car engines more fuel efficient.
Delfyett has also created Raydiance, a multi-million-dollar company that was developed through the UCF Business Incubator Program and started at Central Florida Research Park in 2003. The company developed the world’s first software-controlled ultrashort pulse laser before it was acquired by California-based Coherent in 2015.
“Photonics is an enabling technology — it’s not just powering the internet but influencing the whole spectrum of scientific discovery and advancement,” Delfyett says. “To know that I am contributing in my own special way to the area of optics and photonics is very rewarding to me.”
Advancing the Future
While prestigious awards and fellowships are certainly rewarding, Delfyett says the real honor lies in molding students into scientists.
As someone who was curious about the sciences from a young age, he knows the importance of helping children develop an interest in STEM fields early on to increase the likelihood they pursue those fields in college. This is why he helped the National Science Foundation develop the Scientists and Engineers in the School Program, an outreach effort that teaches middle-schoolers about the importance of STEM in society.
“Every student that goes through [UCF’s optics and photonics] program and graduates will go on to do great things because they’ve had exposure to Peter,” Soileau says.
Those students who work closely with him, also recognize the benefits of his guidance. One of Delfyett’s current doctoral students, Ricardo Bustos-Ramirez ’18MS says he’s an enormous resource because of his more than 30 years of knowledge in the field and infectious excitement for research.
“I really do love having him as my advisor,” Bustos-Ramirez says. “Whether it’s been a failed experiment or something really personal, he has always been there, so I’m really grateful to have someone as a boss who is there for me when I need him. He cares a lot about his students and their futures.”
When it comes to his own future, Delfyett says much like research, it’s difficult to predict what exactly the next big thing will be. However, he is certain that his excitement and love for science will keep him inspired to find it.
“When I think about the future, I hope for more of the same,” Delfyett says. “I’m going to continue to try and do the best research I can at UCF, to share my enthusiasm in the classroom, try to instill that enthusiasm and ambition in my graduate students in my lab, and maintain my service activities at UCF — in the community and beyond — with professional societies as well.”