Reprinted with the permission of Algonquin College.

We leverage photonics in numerous applications daily, in areas as diverse as communications, defense, manufacturing, entertainment, consumer equipment, aviation, agriculture, life sciences, and medicine. Algonquin College is home to the only photonics lab of its kind in the world – all thanks to a substantial upgrade and sponsorship donated by Ciena.

The recently upgraded Ciena Optophotonics Lab, can transmit data flows at 200 Gbit/s, compared to 2.5 Gbit/s previously. The lab features equipment used in major telecommunications facilities in Canada, allowing Algonquin College students to get hands-on experience from world-class and cutting-edge technology in this new teaching lab installation.

​​​​​​​The roots of this partnership stem from when Dr. Almuhtadi and Rodney Wilson, Ciena’s Chief Technologist of External Research Networks, worked together at Nortel more than 20 years ago. Ciena went on to purchase Nortel’s Metro Ethernet Networks (MEN) business in 2009.

Ciena contributed tremendously to the original lab upgrade in 2012, and eight years later, the partnership continues to grow. With Ciena’s continued support, Algonquin College students get a world-class lab on campus, complete with 600km of fiber cables to stimulate a long-distance, multi-city environment. In turn, Ciena, and other photonic industry employers get highly qualified graduates with both theoretical and applied knowledge and the latest and greatest skills while investing in our local economy and the industry. Ciena now boasts more than 100 Algonquin College alumni as part of their worldwide workforce.

The Bachelor of Information Technology – Optical Systems and Sensors (BIT-OSS) program (formerly Photonics & Laser Technology – BIT-PLT), equips the students with exposure to both hardware and software design skills and prepares them for many roles within the industry, including telecommunication system architects and operators. The specialized lab is accessible to all students and visitors and sees 20 dedicated students each year, alongside research and development work and corporate training sessions. “The Optophotonics Lab became a world-class research center to conduct several research projects, a place where SMEs test and integrate their products to the optical communications networks. The lab also provides corporate training”, said Dr. Almuhtadi.

“With this upgrade, we can deliver an updated curriculum with the latest equipment so students can be ready for their future when they get employed in the industry,” added Dr. Almuhtadi. “Our graduates have an incredible employment rate as they usually get multiple offers from employers, even some (current students) before they become graduates."

​​​​​​​For students like Sarah Monforton and Rohan Chopra, the lab was a big selling feature when first applying for the program. “The lab makes all the difference, it really elevates the program,” said Chopra. “We have a distinct advantage because of the equipment we’re using – it is commonly used throughout our industry. It puts us in another league." Monforton concurs: “Having the equipment ready to go in class is so beneficial, with all the hands-on training we have access to before we're even in the workforce.”

They’re both third-year students in the joint program with Carleton University. This program is not for the faint of heart though. “Classes are tough, but you learn to like the challenges,” added Chopra. “With support from companies like Ciena, it helps us stay engaged and continue to grow as technology advances."

With a booming industry, job prospects seem bright for graduates in this growing field. “It doesn’t hurt that the current outlook for the industry is quite positive,” added Monforton. “I feel like we’re on a great path to move with the future with all that we’re learning at Algonquin."

If the upgrades to the lab are any indication, the future is bright for these two and the rest of the photonics students. That future might even find them working for Ciena. Case in point, Amanda Grassi, Prototype Line Supervisor/Technical Support and 2019 Algonquin College Alumni.

“My experience at Ciena has provided me with a lot of learning opportunities and the chance to work with the most cutting-edge technologies in telecoms right now,” Grassi said. “I love that there is always something new to pursue and I am encouraged to develop constantly. I enjoy working with various engineering teams to see the new products through from R&D conceptualization to deployment."