In the study of imaging as a science, Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), located in Rochester, N.Y., is an outlier. While many programs across the country offer degrees in geographic information systems, electrical engineering, physics, or other topics that touch on aspects of imaging science, RIT is currently the only school offering both undergraduate and graduate degrees in the field.
“When we say we’re the only place, it’s because we look at imaging writ large, from a very high-level perspective,” said David Messinger, professor and director of the Chester F. Carlson Center for Imaging Science at RIT.
Students at RIT approach imaging as a chain, starting with photons and ending with data extraction. This approach helps students develop a background in multiple disciplines that all play a role in the imaging process.
“I liked the multidisciplinary aspect of the program,” said Brian Daniel, a senior image scientist at Harris Corp. who received a Ph.D. in imaging science from RIT in 2009. “Mechanical engineers work on mechanical structures, electrical engineers work on breadboards and signal processing, but imaging science is the whole chain: the fundamental physics of light and matter, the optics, the lens assembly, the detectors—which is solid state physics—the engineering of it, and finally the computer science, where you’re figuring out how to get voltages off these detectors and make them into pretty pictures.”
RIT’s multidisciplinary approach to imaging science grew out of the school’s reknowned photography program. Rochester is home to Kodak and Xerox, so the specialization was a natural fit for the school. RIT has offered a course in photographic sciences and technology (a precursor to study imaging sciences) since the 1950s, and is regularly ranked among the top photography schools in the nation. In 2016, RIT’s graduate photography program ranked sixth, according to U.S. News & World Report.
In the mid-1980s, as photographic technology became more complex, the university created the Center for Imaging Science, which began as a multidisciplinary research center. A few years later, the center became a part of the College of Science when RIT decided to offer degrees in imaging science.
Since then, RIT imaging science professors and students have been involved in numerous projects that have contributed to the study of imaging science. Notable among these is the Digital Imaging and Remote Sensing Image Generation model (DIRSIG), a tool used by many government and private organizations—the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, the U.S. Geological Survey, NASA, Lockheed Martin, and Boeing—that allows for advanced analysis of panchromatic, multi-spectral, or hyper-spectral imaging data.
Hands-on work with these types of systems gives RIT students an edge in the demanding geospatial intelligence field. For Julia Barsi, an instrument engineer at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center who received both her undergraduate and master’s degrees in imaging science from RIT, this was particularly true. Her current work at NASA on calibration of thermal Landsat imagery is an extension of research she began at RIT.
“That’s the benefit of [RIT’s] program,” Barsi said. “Your school research is generally funded by a real-world project, so you come out of school being tied into some aspect of a real project that’s going on. I was preparing presentations on my work for my professor to take to his calibration meetings. I don’t know how many students get to do that.”
This immersion in real-world research and projects makes RIT graduates highly desirable to employers. RIT graduates are also coveted by National Labs and academia.
Amanda Ziemann, a post-doctoral research associate at Los Alamos National Labs (LANL) who received her Ph.D. from RIT in 2015 and was awarded a 2014 USGIF Scholarship, talked to many potential employers, including Livermore National Labs, MIT, and Lincoln Labs, before deciding to work at LANL. Like Daniel, she found the transition from RIT to the working world to be “seamless.”
“The way the imaging science program is structured, you’re not working on a deep, theoretical problem without real data, ” Ziemann said. “You’re working on real, application-based problems. These are problems that labs and places in industry are really interested in, so when you go to work there it’s very similar. There’s not a huge learning curve in terms of the material and research process.”
Smooth transitions to the imaging industry are common for students such as Ziemann, who don’t just graduate from RIT ready for the working world, they’re already a part of it during their studies.