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Light-bender recognised with scholarship

- Wits University

Engineering student exploring optics and photonics is among Optica Women Scholars to receive a generous award and international mentorship.

Masters engineering candidate, Alice Drozdov, part of the inaugural class of the Optica Women Scholars

Alice Drozdov, a Masters candidate at the Wits Optical Communication Lab in the School of Electrical and Information Engineering is part of the first cohort of female students described as exceptionally talented in the field of optics, a field in engineering where women are even more scarce than in other engineering fields. The top 20 students were announced by the Optica Foundation located in the United States and will each receive approximately R160 000 and mentorship from experts in the field.

Launched in January 2022, the scholarship seeks to empower and recognise the next generation of female leaders who study light science and technology. More than 160 applications from 36 countries were submitted to the Foundation.

Selection committee member and former president of Optica, Janet Fender, has expressed her delight at the caliber of applicants and her confidence in the class of 2022.  

“When I came up in the world of optics, women peers and role models were rare. I was thrilled to see the outstanding applicants for this program. These scholars will be peers to each other and mentors to the generation coming next,” says Fender.

The excited Drozdov wants to maximise on the opportunities ahead as she expands her knowledge. Prior to the scholarship, Drozdov was selected to attend the Subsea Fibre Optical Communication School from 10 to 16 July 2022.

Drozdov already has three articles published in peer-reviewed scientific journals and her Masters research is titled Modal Diversity for Long-Range Wireless Optical Communication and seeks ways in which to improve the reliability of wireless optical systems.

“In a nutshell, I am researching a method that will assist in mitigating the effects of atmospheric turbulence (the reason why stars twinkle) on a laser beam.”

Studies into the behaviour of light are critical, especially in high-tech communications and the health sectors, among other places.

Her supervisor, Dr Mitchell Cox who is the co-founder and principal investigator at the Wits Optical Communication Lab, the site of the innovative work, explains that Alice’s leading-edge research uses unique patterns of light (called optical modes) to improve the range and reliability of optical links. “In principle, one day we could simply manufacture special pieces of glass which are used to create and detect these special patterns. Imagine making an existing wireless optical communication system better by simply adding a small piece of holographic glass?”

Their vision is to facilitate a digitally inclusive smart future using wireless optical technology. In many places around the world existing connectivity is not fast, reliable, or cheap enough to sustain online activities that many of us take for granted. “We are researching and developing long-range wireless optical technology which we hope will help bridge the digital divide in situations where existing technologies like fibre are not currently viable.”

The digital divide is not their only driver. “Future 5G and 6G installations will require a massive increase in infrastructure, and fibre is often expensive to install, especially in cities where it isn’t already present. This is an opportunity for ‘fibre, without the fibre’,” concludes Mitchell.

Drozdov is preparing for this future and is active in recruiting young people into the field. She is part of the Wits Optics Student Chapter that aims to spread awareness about science, and more specifically optics. As the social media manager, she curates content disseminated via their channels. She was one of the coordinators of the 2021 Wits EIE Women’s Conference. As an undergraduate student she worked as a laboratory assistant during vacation work and assisted in designing a mirror that moves according to the deflection of a laser beam. As a Masters student, she is a teaching assistant tutoring second and third years in her stream.

Although she has a packed schedule, she enjoys orienteering and has won two contemporary dance competition with her friends.

Instagram handles: @WitsOptics and @WitsOCLab