National Hispanic/Latinx Heritage Month: David Vega

Oct. 3, 2023
David Vega at Ansys

David working at Ansys Zemax offices.

In celebration of National Hispanic / Latinx Heritage Month, Sept. 15 - Oct. 15, we recognize Wyant College alumnus, Dr. David Vega (MS, 2018 & PhD, 2021). Today, Dr. Vega is an optical scientist working with Ansys Zemax.

Please tell us who you are in less than 20 words.

I am an optical scientist who designs new modeling solutions that allow engineers to build the most advanced optical systems.

What and/or who influenced your academic and career choice for optics/photonics?  
David Vega Career

David and Dr. Ertan Salik during the OSC Winter School 2016.

While studying physics as an undergrad at CalPoly Pomona, I started to learn about optics with Dr. Ertan Salik. I performed well in this subject, and he invited me to be part of his research group. Without really knowing what “research” was and what it implied, I gave it a try. As part of this research “thing,” I had so much fun prototyping a computational microscope from scratch using a cellphone as the processing unit to detect and count red blood cells in samples. Other projects I assisted with also helped to hone my interest in optics. One day Dr. Salik asked me if I would be interested in pursuing a Ph.D. in optics… “A what?” I replied. Therefore, after some explanation and preparation, he sent me to the Wyant College of Optical Sciences Winter School. In retrospect, without even knowing, he introduced me to these opportunities that guided me to the most consequential decision of my career. Sometime later, I applied to several optics programs and rejected every program where I got admitted except for one. Why? Because I was accepted into the OSC optics program.

Please tell us about your career path, including your position today?

I followed a non-conventional career path. My mother, as a single parent, could not afford college for me but emphasized how important academic education was. Therefore, I worked full-time in a tortilla factory and studied in community colleges. I was unable to take more than one or two classes every semester. Therefore, it took a few years until I had all the prerequisites to transfer to a four-year university. When I transferred to CalPoly, my wife and I had an IT business in Los Angeles, California. There, I learned a lot of business management and team leadership skills. These skills have served me well during my entire career. At some point, I worked, studied, and performed research simultaneously. I was determined to get a Ph.D. and after being accepted to OSC everything accelerated in my career, I started working with Dr. Jennifer Barton and built an endoscope from scratch. After defending, I started working for Zemax as a Senior Optical Engineer. The company was purchased by Ansys, where my function changed, and now I am a Lead R&D Engineer guiding several teams that contribute to the Ansys Zemax OpticStudio multi-physics and fundamental optical designing tools.

During your time at OSC as a student, what resource(s) did you most appreciate? What would you have wished to be available at that time?
David with mentor

David at Photonics West 2023 with Dr. Barton and current lab members.

My mentor, Dr. Jennifer Barton, was probably the most appreciated resource I had and still have! She leads teams with empathy, which makes lab life enjoyable. Additionally, she supported me every step of the way during my PhD. Even after graduation, she is still supporting my endeavors.

Other resources included my dissertation co-advisors Dr. James Schwiegerling. and Dr. Rongguang Liang, who provided constructive feedback and guidance during the last milestones of my Ph.D. The professors who taught me were willing to spend time during and even after office hours. Dr. Masud Mansuripur still remembers when he had to lecture during a 501 study group we organized. We just “happened” to book the conference room closest to his office! Last but not least, the helpful and timely advice from Dr. Daewook Kim, Dr. Koshel, Dr. Sasian, and the list continues. I just needed to ask!

What advice would you offer current optics students and early-career professionals? (in particular as related to your experience as an Hispanic student and early-career professional, yourself)

There are a few points that I would like to emphasize.

  • Connect with people and connect early! They are the most valuable resource in the optics community. We can learn optics theory any time in our room with the appropriate resources, but we cannot create and foster professional relationships when isolated.
  • Ask for help every time you need to. The optics community is small, and we help each other. Asking for help brings many benefits, such as learning from mistakes, fostering teamwork, broadening your perspectives, personal growth, stress reduction, and fostering well-being.
  • Be part of it! Embrace optics, optics will embrace you. You belong, and you better believe it.