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Why Light? SPIE Fellow David Sampson answers

David Sampson is a Fellow Member of SPIE, on the Board of Directors, and Vice-Provost of Research and Innovation at the University of Surrey. He is also the next community member to answer our 'Why Light?' series. The series is leading up to the second annual International Day of Light this 16 May, and asks members of the SPIE community to explain why they feel light is so important.

David has nearly thirty years’ research experience in photonics, optics, and microscopy, and applications in communications and biomedicine. He is an authority in optical coherence tomography, with several main interests including the microscope-in-a-needle. As a Board Member he serves on several committees for SPIE, including the Strategic Planning Committee and the Conference Program Committee, and regularly contributes to SPIE's conferences and journals. He took time out of his very busy schedule to answer for us what light means to him and to the greater global community.

David Sampson

What about light inspires you?

You can see it – reflected(!) in your daily life – this summer we were in St Andrews and it was raining and sunny – the full bow stretched from horizon to horizon. Full bow, inverted bow, second bow – absolutely brilliant.

And then you think that, beyond beauty, beyond atmospherics, it is so empowering in our lives. I grew up in the era of time-delayed long-distance calls via geostationary satellite, one that we still occasionally see on television. Fiber optics changed all that, and a lot more besides. Those thin hairs of glass carrying terabits/second – now that is amazing.

And then – optics is not new – from ancient Arabs such as Al Hazen to the renaissance of Galileo, to the laser of the 1950/60s, to today – it is constantly changing. There is so much that optics and photonics technology still has to give us... we are just not quite sure exactly what.

The double rainbow at St Andrews

How can light help overcome a current global challenge?

By measuring more things better. Sensors for our body’s health parameters are an emerging phenomenon still to mature. Sensors that will allow us to predict an old person will fall before they do so, or detect the onset of dementia before traditional symptoms appear, by exploiting the power of optics and AI/computing. But we could be measuring so much more with light – from disease pathogens, to hormone levels, to blood glucose – optical methods to tell me how stressed I am through my cortisol levels, if I have Vitamin D deficiency after a long winter, or how fit I am. These measures are, as yet, still patchy, full of artifacts, and inaccurate – but we are making progress and there is so much still to gain.

What do you do to share your passion for light?

Get inspired to continue to write grants, do research, and introduce the next-gen of postgraduate researchers to this brilliant field. And I try to give back to my community – mostly in conferences and publications. I do a lot of organizing – conferences such as the International Conference on Biophotonics, ICO Optics Within Life Sciences, the GRC Optics and Photonics in Medicine and Biology, ECI Advances in Optics for Biotechnology, Medicine and Surgery, Photonics West (of course!), IEEE Photonics Congress, and OSA’s Biomedical Optics Congress. You might notice I support all the societies and independent event – I believe we need to bring our professional community together and to show more grassroots leadership. And I try to champion excellence at all scales – and inclusion of all the shapes and sizes and colors and flavors of this marvelously rich 3rd Rock. And then there is publishing – but don’t get me started!

The International Day of Light – IDL – takes place annually on 16 May. IDL is a global initiative that provides a focal point for the continued appreciation of light. This day recognizes light and the vital role it plays in science, culture and art, education, and sustainable development.

On 16 May, join SPIE and communities worldwide by participating in activities that illustrate how the science and art of light improves all our lives. For more information and to plan your own event, visit


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