SANTA CRUZ, CA–Rita Colwell, director of the National Science
Foundation (NSF), will visit the University of California, Santa
Cruz, in April for the dedication of the NSF-funded Center for
Adaptive Optics. During her visit, Colwell will also meet with UCSC
faculty and students, tour the campus, and give a speech on “Research
Trends and Opportunities at NSF.”

The multi-institutional Center for Adaptive Optics, headquartered at
UCSC, was established in 1999 as an NSF Science and Technology Center
focused on the advancement and application of adaptive optics
technology. Adaptive optics (AO) is used in astronomy and vision
science to correct the blurring of images caused when light travels
through an unstable medium. For example, turbulence in the Earth’s
atmosphere limits how clearly astronomers can see stars and other
objects with even the largest ground-based telescopes. Similarly,
internal imperfections and fluids in the eye not only affect vision
but also limit the ability of doctors to get a clear view of the
retina to diagnose and correct retinal defects and disease.

“In astronomy, adaptive optics can remove much of the blurring caused
by the atmosphere, giving us the sharpest images of stars, planets,
and galaxies ever obtained with ground-based telescopes. But there
are still significant technical challenges to overcome before we can
realize the full potential of this technology,” said Jerry Nelson,
director of the Center for Adaptive Optics and a professor of
astronomy and astrophysics at UCSC.

“We are also seeing some major advances in vision science through the
use of adaptive optics, and we expect to see new ophthalmic
instrumentation developed in the near future,” Nelson added.

At the dedication on April 26, the Center for Adaptive Optics will
celebrate recent progress in adaptive optics and the completion of a
new headquarters building on the UC Santa Cruz campus. The
4,000-square-foot building on Science Hill provides offices and
meeting space for faculty, visiting scientists, students, and

The center has 28 partner institutions, including universities,
national laboratories, industry partners, and international
collaborators. Five UC campuses, the California Institute of
Technology, University of Chicago, University of Houston, University
of Rochester, and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL)
are among the top institutions advancing the science and technology
behind adaptive optics. Industry partners such as Bausch & Lomb and
Lucent Technologies are working with the center to develop practical
new devices and implement AO applications in health care and other

Researchers affiliated with the center have installed adaptive optics
systems on major telescopes at the Lick Observatory on Mt. Hamilton,
CA, and the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii. These AO systems use a
known source of light as a reference beacon to measure atmospheric
distortions, then remove the distortion by bouncing the light off a
deformable mirror. The measurement and correction of distortions is
repeated hundreds of times per second.

A major advance has been the use of a laser system to create a
“virtual” guide star in the upper atmosphere as the reference
light-source. A laser guide star system developed at LLNL was
recently installed on the Keck II Telescope. One of the challenges
for the future will be to devise AO systems that can use multiple
guide stars, Nelson said.

In vision science, researchers have developed prototype instruments
that show tremendous promise for clinical use. Potential applications
include improvements in diagnosis and monitoring of retinal diseases,
better contact lenses, and more accurate laser surgery procedures.
The current challenges are to bring down the cost of the AO systems
for vision science and make them durable and reliable enough for
routine clinical use.

The center’s education and outreach programs are another major part
of its activities. Focusing on underrepresented groups of students
from high school to graduate level, the programs are designed to
attract and retain a new generation of scientists and engineers.
Professional development courses and mentoring programs are offered
to graduate students and postdoctoral researchers.

The Center for Adaptive Optics is funded by a $20 million, five-year
grant from NSF, which is extendable for an additional five years of
funding at the same level. The NSF is the single largest source of
funding for research at UC Santa Cruz, currently supporting 153
active projects with total annual funding of approximately $19

Rita Colwell has been director of the NSF since 1998. She has
spearheaded the agency’s emphases in K-12 science and mathematics
education, graduate science and engineering education and training,
and increased participation of women and minorities in science and
engineering. Under Colwell’s leadership, the agency has supported
major new initiatives in the areas of nanotechnology, biocomplexity,
information technology, and the 21st century workforce.

Before taking the helm at NSF, Colwell was president of the
University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute and professor of
microbiology at the University of Maryland. She holds a B.S. in
bacteriology and an M.S. in genetics from Purdue University, and a
Ph.D. in oceanography from the University of Washington.