The end of an era for the Chester F. Carlson Center for Imaging Science

John Schott retires from teaching

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A. Sue Weisler

John Schott’s remote sensing research laid the cornerstone for RIT’s Ph.D. in imaging science. He retires from teaching at the Chester F. Carlson Center for Imaging Science this spring.

John Schott likes to take on big projects at work and at home.

During his 33 years at RIT, Schott helped form the Chester F. Carlson Center for Imaging Science and built the first Ph.D. program. He won the university’s initial research funding in 1981 in support of NASA’s Landsat program of Earth-orbiting satellites that monitor global climate change and gave the university a reputation for remote sensing.

His work commitments frequently extended into the weekend, but in his limited spare time, Schott transformed his family’s simple “salt box” cottage, built in the 1940s on the Canadian side of Lake Erie, into a year-round beach house, with multiple additions. Later, he took up woodworking when his wife, Pam, told him he needed a hobby, and now builds Mission-style couches, chairs and hutches.

Schott, the Frederick and Anna B. Wiedman Professor in Imaging Science, is retiring from teaching this spring. His research agenda will continue with a five-year commitment to NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey, which named him to the Landsat 8 science and calibration teams, and also with ongoing projects for the National Reconnaissance Office.

“I love the classroom, and I’m going to miss it, but at the same time, we have five faculty now who do remote sensing in the center,” Schott says. “I’ve been teaching the core remote sensing courses for a long time, and I think it’s time for some of these other guys to shape the curriculum and to get the newest and latest ideas into the classroom.”

One of his successors, Carl Salvaggio ’87 (imaging science), has long regarded Schott as a mentor. Their connection began in the classroom when Salvaggio was an undergraduate and Schott, a new professor in the then-Department of Photo Science.

“We knew each other right from the start,” Salvaggio says. “I was one of the first students that he had.”

Salvaggio’s son, Philip, ’12 (computer science) began the Ph.D. program in imaging science last fall.

“John just had Phil in his remote sensing class,” Salvaggio says. “So, Phil is one of the last students he ever has. I’m waiting for John to pull out the old grade book and say, ‘Phil did better than you.’ ”

Schott hopes to have the chance to work with Phil Salvaggio through his doctorate. “Those two young Salvaggios,” he says. “Carl was one of my brightest students a long time ago, and Phil is in the same mold.”

The Ph.D. that Schott developed draws high-caliber students and faculty such as the Salvaggios, who reflect Schott’s commitment to rigorous science.

“I spent almost the first 10 years I was here building the research and fighting to convince the various constituencies that it was OK to have a Ph.D. in imaging science,” Schott says. “We needed students who would be here longer to do fundamental research. To do state-of-the-art research is very hard with only master’s level students. We needed the doctoral program to do proper research.”

RIT’s Department of Photo Science recruited Schott in 1980 from the remote-sensing industry to jumpstart a research program and to champion the university’s first doctoral degree. He was 29 years old and had worked at Cornell Aeronautical Laboratories, now Cal-Span, in Buffalo for eight years on remote sensing contracts, including research for an early Landsat launch.

Digital technology revolutionized the photo science curriculum and, by 1985, the department had changed its name to “imaging science” and morphed into the first joint research and teaching center on campus. In 1989, RIT enrolled its first class of doctoral students in imaging science.

“It was a very rapid change for the university,” Schott says. “It seemed like forever to me.”

The nuance of Schott’s legacy extends beyond the Ph.D. in imaging science to the cultural and philosophic change it represented for RIT as a teaching university. The RIT Board of Trustees had to amend the university’s charter to allow for doctoral programs; the policy council, led by powerful deans, had to approve the change. Schott’s persistence—bolstered by the support of then-RIT President Richard Rose, Bob Desmond and other administrators—eventually wore down detractors at all levels.

“I think everyone would agree that teaching is the foremost focus for the university and things are evolving slowly,” Schott says. “The administration is saying everyone should do research. It’s a slow evolving process. In imaging science, teaching is still a big part of what we do, but teaching is just a fraction. We also focus on research. And at the graduate level, you can’t differentiate. Teaching and research is the same thing.”

This fall, a younger colleague—perhaps Carl Salvaggio or David Messinger, who replaced Schott as director of the Digital Imaging and Remote Sensing Laboratory—will teach Schott’s signature remote sensing class. Schott will come to campus at least once a week to work on research and meet with his graduate students. He will spend the rest of his time easing into semi-retirement with the same industrious approach he applies to everything in life.

While his colleagues will be adjusting to RIT’s first fall semester, Schott will be knocking down walls and turning two condominiums he and his wife bought in Buffalo into one expansive unit. He will handle most of the renovation himself, running his own wiring and doing all of his own carpentry work, while he and his wife live in the smaller of the two condos.

The Schotts are looking forward to returning to the city they left in 1980 to be closer to RIT.

“The idea of being in a neighborhood again where you can walk to restaurants and to shops is very attractive to us,” Schott says.

Moving back to Buffalo will bring the couple closer to family and their house on the lake, where Schott keeps his woodworking shop. He is finishing a second couch and set of chairs for the condo. His growing interest in art glass led him to designate a section of the condo’s utility room to teach himself the craft.

“I decided I needed to give myself a challenge when I retire,” Schott says. “I want to learn how to work with stained glass—art glass. I like the idea of merging glass and wood into projects—just for fun.”