“I always try to bridge the science to the application. I see research as design—and as an art, the same way lighting design is design and an art. The key is to be able to match these two areas and make them work together. If you do research without thinking about the application, it's probably going to be shelved in a manuscript somewhere that nobody will read.”
Had it not been for a design research seminar while a graduate student at the Lighting Research Center (LRC), part of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., Mariana Figueiro might never have pursued a career in lighting education and research. The class, taught by Mark Rea, has since served as the foundation for her work in the field of light and health. Figueiro began researching light's effect on performance and alertness—what has become her area of expertise—while enrolled in the seminar. Rea was looking for someone to spend the summer at a South Bend, Ind., hospital doing field work, and approached Figueiro. There, she collected data from rotating shift nurses exposed to bright lights while working in the neonatal intensive care unit. Studying the non-visual effects of light, Figueiro knew there was real science behind light's effect on human biology—and discoveries to be made.
What fascinates you about light? It touches all aspects of our lives, yet it's taken for granted by most everybody.
What text has influenced your work? The Art of Scientific Investigation by William I.B. Beveridge. He talks about the mind of a researcher and the art of conducting research.
How has the practice of lighting research evolved since you started teaching in 1996? LEDs have changed the way we think about light, especially in terms of metrics, such as color rendering and lamp life. Additionally, researchers have always tried to link productivity to lighting by looking at how light affects visibility. Now there is a move away from that to include other benefits of lighting, such as well-being.
Light and health issues seem to have caught the attention of the design community. How do you tailor the conversation to a lighting audience versus a scientific audience? It's about making the bridge between science and application, so people understand the issues as more than just sound bites.
How do you encourage students to pursue teaching and research rather than work for a design firm or a manufacturer? Starting the LRC's Ph.D. program has helped because it is easier to obtain an academic position if one has a Ph.D. But that still doesn't mean it's easy. Finding a teaching position is difficult, and even more so if it's tenure track.
What advice do you give to your students? No matter what you do—design or research—do it with two things: passion and excellence.