Friday, November 14, 2014

The problem with work-life balance is it first assumes a life.

The nice thing about working in a technical industry job is although I work long hours during the week, I'm not expected to bring my work home.

OK, this isn't entirely true. I'm still expected to check email and respond in case shit goes down, but for the most part my coworkers leave me alone on my days off. Being single and living alone means my weekends are pretty low-key. I drink coffee, do laundry, listen to music and make plans with friends. I recently got a television. It's nice, I guess.

Maybe it's a lingering side-effect of the constant struggle that is academia, but whenever I take advantage of some down-time for myself, there's always a nagging guilt I could be doing something more productive with my time. I could be reading research papers or catching up on sci/tech headlines or writing, but instead I shop for area rugs on West Elm, play Plants vs. Zombies for two hours and then meet friends for drinks.

Is that ok? Is it a life? Or worse, am I not ambitious enough in my spare time?

In this way, I totally do NOT relate to this Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal comic. Nope. Not at all.

I lied. I do. I totally do.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Thank you for the introduction, Mister Chairman (part 1)

Part of a series of posts on being a woman in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) and how it isn't actually that bad, most of the time. 

Sometimes I forget how big the gender gap in STEM really is.

Last year, I traveled to Germany as an invited speaker for a large physics conference. After I'd arrived, registered, and settled into the room my talk was held, I scanned the room for familiar faces. It suddenly struck me that the audience was completely dominated by men.  I looked down at the speaker schedule and realized there was only one other female speaker in our entire symposium of twenty talks.

You know what? It was fine. It was otherwise totally normal, unsurprising and fine. The symposium was interesting, the venue was perfect, the conference organizers were generous and welcoming. I never felt singled-out or disrespected in any way.

There was only this one little thing. While serving as chair for an afternoon session, I introduced a nervous graduate student speaker who automatically replied, “Thank you for the introduction, Mister Chairman.

I simply smiled and took my seat. A few people in the audience chuckled. It was obvious English was not his first language and perhaps "Mister Chairman" was exactly how he practiced it. Why would he assume the chair might be a woman? Was he supposed to say "Miss Chairperson" in this instance? I don't even know. Can you blame him?

I never wanted this blog to focus on my experience being a woman in engineering. 

I never wanted to write posts like "Can you believe this male coworker said this questionably sexist thing to me? What does this mean for women in science as a whole and how are we going to prevent this from discouraging young women to pursue science?"

Honestly, I've never experienced blatant sexism. 

I'm not saying sexism in STEM doesn't exist. It totally does. I'm not saying the conversation about sexism in STEM isn't important. It totally is. Sexist bullshit DOES happen and there are a lot of people contributing great, thought-provoking articles about gender inequality in the STEM community. 

But in my years of academia and industry, I don't have any horror stories. I've never been stopped in my tracks by sexism. There's only the occasional little things, questionably sexist but usually amusing, that remind me I'm an outlier. Maybe they build up over time but they never seem to matter in the long run.

I don't spend a lot of time thinking about being a woman in engineering because I'm too busy being an engineer. 

I'm posting this because maybe being a woman in engineering and NOT experiencing sexism is important to talk about too.

To be continued.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Published. (The other kind.)

My first pop-science article has been recently published in UCSB Convergence magazine.  Check it out online here.

Photo credit: École Polytechnique, Ph. Lavialle
The title the editors chose, "Goodbye to Droop" is a little misleading.  I wrote about a recent discovery (by my postdoc advisor and others) in which they merely identified a leading cause of LED efficiency droop. They haven't necessarily (publicly) solved the droop problem yet.

At the same time, I realize a more accurate title "Leading Cause of LED Efficiency Droop Potentially Identified" is less tantalizing for sure.

The article was written over a year ago for a science communication workshop arranged by UCSB’s Center for Science and Engineering Partnership (CSEP) Professional Development Series.  I had a lot of fun writing it and look forward to future opportunities to communicate science.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

What do I do for a living? I put stuff on stuff.

Nine months ago, after six years of graduate and postdoctoral research on laser diodes, I took a job in the semiconductor industry.

Acquaintances of mine occasionally ask: "How's the laser business?" I then have to explain that I don't work with lasers anymore. I work in thin films. I'm almost apologetic about it because I know thin films sound much less sexy. Boring even. But it's not boring at all!

Electronic chips are very complex and made up of lots of layers, layers that define where electricity goes from one point to the other. These chips are insanely intricate. The demand for better, faster, cheaper electronic things means these chips are only getting smaller and more intricate. I specialize in one layer, a very thin layer, that's used in the process of making these chips. This is called a thin film. And the process of putting it on there is called thin film deposition. This is what I do.

New semiconductor technology like 3D NAND involves lots of layers of very small dimensions
Image from IEEE Spectrum

The leap from lasers to thin films wasn't so big. In school I studied deposition for laser diode applications, using technique called MOCVD (metal-organic chemical vapor deposition).  Doesn't matter what it's called.  Basically I programmed a machine to deposit a bunch of layers on top of a sample.  Then I tested the properties of the layers, and then I'd see if I could tweak various knobs on the machine to tweak the properties of the layers. When I thought I got everything right, I would make a laser diode out of it. I would make a laser out of the layers.

These days I still specialize in deposition, but this time I'm using a different technique called ALD (atomic layer deposition).  I still work on a machine that deposits layers and I'm still tweaking knobs and seeing how that changes the properties of the layers. That's it. No lasers.

ALD process cycle deposits thin films one molecule at a time
Image from Oxford Instruments

The nice part of working with thin films is I really get to dig in and focus on the deposition process and the various knobs on the machine and how they change the film properties.

The problem with working with thin films is they are SO THIN.  We're talking tens of nanometers, which is getting down to the atomic level of things. When you're working with films that thin it's hard to even measure them accurately. Even basic properties like how THICK the film is can be hard.

So, in addition to knob-turning the deposition of thin films, I'm digging into different techniques used to measure them.

One of the ways we measure the thickness of thin films is with light.  You shine a light at the film, and depending on how the light reflects off of it, you can derive how thick the film is. The phenomenon behind this measurement technique is thin film interference, which a lot of people learn about in undergraduate-level physics. Interestingly, this measurement can often involve a laser.

Some basics of thin film light interference to measure film thickness
from Applied Spectroscopy

So that's what I do. I use a machine to deposit a thin layer on things. And then I measure properties of the layer by shining light at it. And then I turn knobs on the machine to tweak the properties of the layer. And when I get it right, we sell the machine to companies who use it to manufacture the electronic chips that go into computers, cell phones and tvs and such.

I also do other stuff.  Like copy and paste datapoints in Excel. But that part is actually boring.

Some related posts: