New Optica Community story features Native American physicist

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Native American physicist Franklin Dollar

Optica (formerly OSA), announces the third instalment in the Optica Community series celebrating Native American physicist Franklin Dollar.

“Free Pizza” tells the story of how Dollar navigated a difficult transition from life in a close-knit tribal community to a large state university to become the physicist he is today. 

Optica’s Chief Scientist, P. Scott Carney, said: “Franklin’s experience resonates with many of us, many first-generation students. Most of us have wondered if a university is the place for us. His story demonstrates the value and importance of welcoming communities. His success and contributions to the field call on us to nurture talent as we find it.”

Dollar grew up among the Dry Creek Band of Pomo Indians, an Indigenous Nation in California famed for their exceptional basket weavers, artists and bakers. He lived at the northern edge of California’s wine country, where the disparity in wealth was stark. “On one side, you have wineries and Michelin star restaurants, but on the other, trailers and impermanent housing."

In high school, Dollar found a great mentor in his science teacher, who encouraged him to study physics and to apply to a leading university, but the transition from tribal life to the University of California, Berkeley was difficult.

Dollar’s life was transformed when a flyer for an event offering free pizza caught his attention. It prompted him to attend an information session for a research program at the Center for X-Ray Optics at Lawrence Berkeley National Labs. 

He saw an environment that resonated with him. “When I saw how these people worked, I said, ‘I want to do what these guys are doing!’ I just loved the climate and the environment. And so, I applied.”

Today, Dollar is Associate Dean of Graduate Studies and Associate Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of California, Irvine School of Physical Sciences. He is currently working on the most powerful laser in the US — the Zetawatt-Equivalent Ultrashort pulse laser System or ZEUS — where he and his team are preparing to send its first pulses into an experimental target. He also works to encourage other native students to pursue scientific knowledge while staying true to their culture. 

Dollar was recently named a Fellow of the American Physical Society (APS) Division of Plasma Physics, an honor that recognizes his contribution to high-intensity laser physics and his committed efforts to change the culture of his field in the realms of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).

To learn more about Franklin Dollar’s story, read “Free Pizza.”

Optica’s Community Values

Optica has been a respected authority on light science and technology for more than a century, with a heritage dating back to the Optical Society of America's founding in 1916. Optica’s publications, programs, events, and advocacy support the optics and photonics community as they invent the future and uncover the beautiful secrets of the universe with light. Today, Optica unites a diverse population of students, scientists, engineers and professionals working in light science and technology. The society is a champion for the field and advocates for the interests of its members around the world.

The Optica Community series is a collection of extraordinary life stories celebrating Optica's global diversity and the values its members share. 

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