ECE Alum Eric Swanson Receives National Medal of Technology and Innovation Alongside Two Colleagues
UMass Amherst alumnus Eric A. Swanson, who earned his B.S. from the Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) Department in 1982, is one of three research colleagues who were awarded the National Medal of Technology and Innovation by President Joe Biden at a White House ceremony on Tuesday, October 24, 2023.
The honor was bestowed upon collaborators Professor James G. Fujimoto of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Dr. David Huang of the Casey Eye Institute at the Oregon Health & Science University, and Eric Swanson—in recognition of the invention of optical coherence tomography (OCT), which uses light beams to visualize microscopic structures within tissues of the body such as the retina and coronary artery.
According to the White House press release, "The National Medal of Technology and Innovation is the nation’s highest honor for technological achievement, bestowed by the president of the United States on America's leading innovators. It recognizes American innovators whose vision, intellect, creativity, and determination have strengthened America’s economy and improved our quality of life.”
OCT technology has become a standard of care in the early detection and treatment of sight-threatening conditions such as macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy, and glaucoma. Ophthalmology offices around the globe now commonly use OCT testing (at a rate of about one scan every second), in which the patient simply rests a chin and forehead against an instrument for a brief scan. Accordingly, Dr. Huang estimates that roughly 40-million OCT exams are done worldwide each year.
Upon receiving the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, Swanson reflected: “I am thankful for the opportunity to have attended good K-12 schools and colleges, have outstanding mentors and colleagues, made good career path decisions, and a lot of luck. I am honored but very humbled as there are so many stellar researchers and innovators in the field of OCT who have propelled it to where it is today and where it’s going in the future - and there are so many wonderful things still to come!”
Earlier this year, Fujimoto, Huang, and Swanson also received the esteemed 2023 Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award. As the Lasker Foundation explained about the award-winning technology, “The ability to painlessly generate high-resolution, cross-sectional images of the eye’s internal architecture in real time and without physical contact was unprecedented, and OCT revolutionized ophthalmology by allowing doctors to rapidly detect and then treat diseases of the retina that impair vision, thereby saving the eyesight of millions.”
Swanson has enjoyed a highly successful career since graduating from UMass Amherst. He has served in a variety of technical and managerial roles in academic, entrepreneurial, industrial, federally funded research and development centers, government, and nonprofit organizations. During his 16 years at the MIT Lincoln Laboratory, Swanson participated in the discovery and advancement of OCT and worked on optical fiber telecommunication networks (including one of the first wavelength-division, multiplexed, all-optical networks) and space communication (including one of the first intersatellite-laser-communication systems).
Swanson is also a cofounder of several startup companies, including: Advanced Ophthalmic Devices (an ophthalmic OCT company acquired by Zeiss Meditec in 1994); Lightlab Imaging (a cardiovascular OCT company acquired by Abbot); Sycamore Networks (Nasdaq IPO 1999); and Acacia Communications (Nasdaq IPO 2016). These companies have evolved over time and shipped many billions of dollars in products around the world.
Beyond the National Medal of Technology and Innovation and the Lasker Award, Swanson is also a co-recipient of several other celebrated international awards: the 2017 Fritz J. and Dolores H. Russ Prize from the National Academy of Engineering, the 2017 European Inventor Award, the 2012 António Champalimaud Vision Award, and the 2002 Rank Prize in Optoelectronics.
Swanson was elected a fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers in 2017 for contributions to OCT and leadership in optical networking. In 2002 he was elected a fellow of the Optical Society of America (now Optica) for pioneering contributions to the fields of intersatellite-laser-communication systems, fiber-optic-communication networks, and biomedical-optical imaging. He has co-authored 80 journal articles, 184 conference presentations and lectures, 63 issued US patents, and 9 book chapters.
According to Swanson, “Multidisciplinary collaboration was essential to the discovery and rapid development of OCT and Dr. Carmen Puliafito and Dr. Joel Schuman were pioneering clinician scientists who, among other things, led groundbreaking ophthalmic studies. MD/PhD student Michael Hee and Postdoctoral fellow Dr. Joseph Izatt soon joined the collaboration and progress in ophthalmology greatly accelerate. Today there are tens of millions of OCT procedures every year, and there is a healthy OCT ecosystem with thousands of innovative researchers, engineers and business people advancing the field. OCT is a fundamental, broad, and powerful technology that will increasingly address pressing needs throughout medical and industrial imaging and will continue to have a positive effect on millions of people.”
In addition to his B.S. (summa cum laude) from the UMass ECE department, Swanson earned an M.S. in Electrical Engineering from MIT.