James Kafka attended the Institute of Optics at the University of Rochester, where he obtained a B.S. in Optics in 1977 and a Ph.D. in Optics in 1983, studying with Conger Gabel and Gerard Mourou, the recipient of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physics. Of his time spent at Rochester, Kafka found that it was a fabulous time to be at the Institute and the Laboratory for Laser Energetics, as he met lifelong friends and colleagues, including several future Optica Presidents such as 2018 Nobel Prize winner Donna Strickland.
In 1983, Kafka started as a Senior Scientist at Spectra-Physics Lasers, where he has held a series of positions with increasing responsibility, including Chief Technology Officer. He was recently named a Fellow of MKS, the parent company of Spectra-Physics. During the past 38 years, he designed several of the company’s most significant products, including the Tsunami, the first commercial ultrafast Ti: sapphire laser (1990), the Millennia X, the first commercial 10 W solid-state green laser (1997), and the InSight, the first broadly tunable ultrafast source for microscopy (2011). Kafka was recognized as a Spectra-Physics Fellow in 1987. He also received the Thermo Electron Corporate Award for Technical Innovation in 2002 and the first Newport Corporation Strategic Patent Award in 2007 for his patent of the first diode-pumped double-clad fiber laser. Kafka has 45 United States patents and multiple foreign equivalents. He has more than 30 publications in refereed journals and has made more than 40 presentations at CLEO, Optica topical meetings, SPIE conferences and at major universities. Kafka presented a plenary talk at the 2018 IEEE Photonics Conference.
Kafka has served the professional community as the Ultrafast Topical Editor for JOSA B (1994-1995), Lasers Technical Group Chair (1995-1997), and on a dozen conference organizing committees. He has served as the CLEO program chair (1999), CLEO general chair (2001), and on the CLEO Steering Committee (1997–2001). He completed a three-year sequence as the Program and General Chair of the Advanced Solid-State Photonics topical meeting (2009-2011). Kafka was named an Optica Fellow in 2005 and served as a Director at Large on Optica Board of Directors from 2012 to 2014. He was a member (2015) and chair (2016) of the prestigious Charles Hard Townes Medal Committee and a member of the Frederick Ives Medal / Jarus W. Quinn Prize Committee for 2020 and 2021. Kafka was a lecturer at the inaugural Siegman Summer School in 2014 and again in 2020 and a lecturer at the Optica Career Accelerator in 2022. One of his favorite contributions to the optics community has been serving as a Distinguished Traveling Lecturer for the APS Division of Laser Science from 1999 to 2017.