When the University of North Carolina at Charlotte recently announced the hiring of Dr. Michael Fiddy as director of the university’s Center for Optoelectronics and Optical Communications, it only received a few lines in the local media.

Yet it is one of the initial steps UNCC is taking in a journey to make the university, in the words of Fiddy, “a mecca for the optoelectronics industry.”

“This is my dream job,” Fiddy says. “I’m an evangelist when it comes to promoting optoelectronics. It’s where the technology is headed. I am very confident we’ll succeed here. We’ll have a new building, we have the support of the state, and there is already faculty on board conducting research in the field of optical technology. Optoelectronics is a fast-changing technology, and it’s essential for our faculty to be on the cutting edge”

The Charlotte region is also home for a number of fiber optics manufacturers, such as Alcatel, Corning Cable Systems and Digital Optics, which UNCC already has relationships with.

An experienced scientist

Before coming to UNCC, Fiddy, 50, created an optics center at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, where he headed the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. Before joining UMass Lowell in 1987, he held faculty positions at Catholic University of America, the University of Rochester, and the University of London, where he earned his bachelor’s and doctoral degrees. He is known for his work in the fields of inverse optics, inverse problems and optical engineering, and is widely respected for his solutions to difficult and important problems in mathematical optics. At UMass Lowell, he was involved in the development of optical hardware and software for a smart handgun.

Simply speaking, Fiddy describes optoelectronics as “manipulating light with light or electrons.” Its biggest commercial use so far is in the area of telecommunications, which accounts for about 40 percent of its applications. But it’s also creeping into use in computing and for use as a diagnostic tool in medicine. “There’s no part of the human body that’s safe from a laser beam these days,” he says.

Adds Fiddy, “Optoelectronics is an enabling technology for so many things, and the Center at UNCC will reflect that. We’ll be a resource to the community on many levels.”

The Charlotte Institute for Technology Innovation

While faculty members working in optoelectronics are currently housed in several locations, the Optoelectronics Center will have its own building on campus by 2004. It will be the first one built on a 100-acre site that will house The Charlotte Institute for Technology Innovation, which was formed last year.

The Institute will further advance the University’s technological research capabilities, with the purpose of gaining national recognition, creating new high tech companies in the region, and expanding the intellectual capital the region can draw on. There will be three areas of focus: the Optoelectronics Center, precision metrology and intelligent manufacturing, and software and information technology, particularly privacy issues.

The first three buildings at the Institute complex will be funded from part of UNCC’s $190 million share of the $3.1-billion university system capital improvements bond passed by state voters in November 2000. On Jan. 11, the UNC Board of Governors’ designated the Institute a `Millennium Campus,’ giving it a legal status that provides it with flexibility in forging corporate partnerships.

A long-term effort

While Fiddy’s hiring is major milestone, the effort to expand UNCC’s technological research capabilities actually dates back to the early 1990s when UNCC built the C.C. Cameron Applied Research Center. Today, faculty conduct more than $5 million in externally funded research there, and four companies have been created as a result of their work.

The Cameron Center’s creation was also part a larger, long-term effort to transform the university into a research institution, with a number of graduate and doctoral programs. It’s an effort both encouraged and blessed by Charlotte’s business community.

Advantage Carolina, a strategic economic development plan developed by the Charlotte Chamber in the late 1990s, specifically addressed UNCC’s need to expand its technological research capabilities and called for the creation of the Institute. Beth Hardin is its director.