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Credit: Boston University
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Interview of Alice White by David Zierler on March 24, 2021,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
For multiple citations, "AIP" is the preferred abbreviation for the location.
Interview with Alice White, Professor and Chair of Mechanical Engineering at Boston University. She recounts her childhood as the daughter of a Bell Labs physicist and her early interests in learning how things work, and she explains her decision to attend Middlebury College. White describes her formative fellowship at Bell Labs and her graduate research in physics at Harvard, where Mike Tinkham supervised her research. She describes being hired by Bob Dynes at MTS in Bell Labs for her postdoctoral research in low temperature physics and she discusses her subsequent work with John Poate on ion implantation. White explains her increasing involvement in optics and the significance of this work during the "dot com" boom and she narrates the reorganization and breakup of Bell. She describes the opportunities that led to her faculty appointment at BU, and she describes working at the interface between mechanical engineering and physics. White describes creating the Multiscale Laser Lithography Lab and her overlapping research interests with biologists, and she reflects on some of the advantages at BU of operating in the shadows of MIT and Harvard. She discusses her tenure as department chair and her research on 3D printing for cardiac repairs. At the end of the interview, White reflects on working at Bell Labs at the height of American power and ingenuity, she emphasizes the importance of encouraging her students to take scientific risks, and she indicates that her future research will be devoted to climate change.
Okay. This is David Zierler, Oral Historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is March 24th, 2021. I'm delighted to be here with Professor Alice White. Alice, it's great to see you. Thank you so much for joining me.
Thanks for having me. Actually, I'm honored to be asked to do this.
Well, it's my pleasure. Okay, so, to start, Alice, would you please tell me your current title and institutional affiliation?
Sure. I'm Professor and Chair of Mechanical Engineering at Boston University.
How long have you been at BU?
I started in September 2013. So, this is my eighth year in the role.
A question we're all dealing with right now, for you, for your science, for your collaborations, how has the last year in the pandemic been? In what ways has the physical isolation, perhaps, given you more bandwidth to work on some longstanding problems you otherwise might not have, and in what ways has not having that physical interpersonal contact with your collaborators and friends really messed up your research agenda?
Yeah, it's been a long slog, I will say. If I were not the chair of the department, I might have had that extra bandwidth that you're talking about, since my children are grown and not living at home. I'm not trying to homeschool kids and do a full-time job. But because of the logistical issues that resulted from the pandemic, it has been an extremely busy time. I will say that there have been some bright spots. I'll just mention a few of them to you, because missing the daily interactions with the students, which is what drives us and gives us energy, has been extremely hard. But there have been some really good things. One of them is, in the department, we were trying to move our instructional labs from being more cookbook and more demonstration-like to actually being simpler and more intuitive. And the requirement to go remote, or we call it Learn from Everywhere at Boston University, meant that we had to find a simpler way to do these labs. We actually shipped lab kits to every single student, wherever they were around the world, and they did the experiments using things in their home: their cellphone, water running out of the faucet. So, it accelerated a change that we wanted to do anyway. And I will say, a change that the faculty was a little resistant about. So, it broke that barrier very quickly, and I think we'll continue using those labs even when we get back to in-person.
The other thing is that the remote format made many things more accessible to a lot of people. I'll tell you more about it later, but we have an Engineering Research Center which involves students at about five different universities. We tended to have our meetings in a room with the bulk of the people from BU, and everybody else was remote. And those meetings really happened in the room. And as soon as we all went remote, everybody was on equal footing, and they became much more engaging for the remote people. So, that was another thing. Lastly, I will say that I'm a skier, and I was able to do more skiing this year because I was able to work, also, from Vermont, where we have a cabin. So, that was definitely a silver lining.
Alice, from your vantage point as chair, but also as a very successful graduate mentor, in what ways has this past year caused you concern for the career prospects of graduate students and post-docs in particular?
Well, I should also mention that the students, especially if they lived alone, were very, very affected by the isolation. So, almost all of them have had, in addition to not being able to get into the lab on a regular basis, they've had a lot of struggles with their mental health and what they want to do. I'm actually quite optimistic about their prospects, because I think they have a great skillset and they're going to be the people that are in demand when things start to come back. So, I'm not worried about that, but they are asking themselves a lot what they want to do after they get out, because it has not been a good experience for them.
Well, Alice, before we go back and develop your personal narrative, I'd like to ask a broad question that I think will permeate our conversation. That is, coming from your background, coming from Bell, there's this divide between the basic science, and particularly in your field, applications. Places where your research does have industrial or commercial value. So, both scientifically and administratively, and even economically, where do you see yourself in these broad spectra of decisions about the kind of science that you do and the kind of science you've done over the course of your career?
You know, I had a chance to do many different things at Bell, and I really found the times when I had a clear customer to be the most rewarding. I've actually been able to do that with my research group here at BU. But it's why I chose engineering as opposed to physics when I was looking for faculty positions. Since most of the PhD students in engineering go on to industry, this is a training that most of them are not getting. I thought I was, again, able to really help them experience some of what I liked about industry, even as a graduate student. I could do this because I came in with tenure, but for faculty who are getting tenure in engineering, they almost always need to do basic science. So, I could spend an entire three hours talking about the contrast between industry and academia, but I will say there are some big differences, big challenges in thinking about how to navigate that as a faculty member.
Well, Alice, let's take it all the way back to the beginning. Let's start, first, with your parents. Tell me something about them and where they're from.
Well, I recently lost my father, so it is a little bit emotional to talk about them. I will say, I spent last week with both of my brothers going through my childhood home cleaning it out. So, it's really front of my mind what it was like growing up. My parents were, especially in retrospect, absolutely extraordinary. My dad grew up -- they were both from New Jersey, so I was second generation New Jersey. My dad was born in '23. So, the first thing that hit them was the Depression. They were even homeless for a while. It was a really terrible experience and certainly shaped the way he thought about finances for his entire life. He couldn't afford to go to college, but he had a great math teacher in high school. It's very interesting. So, he was drafted and went into the Army. That was an experience that he didn't talk about with me until he was in his 80s -- couldn't talk about with me.
Where did he serve?
He served in the Pacific. He was in Okinawa. The only conversation we had until just recently was I had been reading a book about the dropping of the atomic bombs, I said to him that I wasn't sure why we dropped the second bomb so quickly. And he said to me, "Well, I was in Okinawa, ready to invade Japan, facing certain death, and I'm pretty glad they dropped that second bomb quickly."
Let's not overthink this.
Yes. So, he went to college on the GI Bill. I asked him once, why physics? And said when they were realizing that they were going to send these servicemen back to college, they gave them a physics book to read. He thought it was pretty neat. He knew some math, and he obviously had a knack for that. He went on to graduate school and got his master's degree. By then he was close to 30, and he just thought he needed to get a job and get working.
What schools did he go to, Alice?
He went to Rutgers for his undergraduate degree, and Syracuse for his master's degree. I saw how the fact that he didn't have a PhD really affected his career trajectory. So, that's something that was always in the back of my mind. He went to work at Federal Telecommunications Lab, and there, he met my mom. My mother had a somewhat different experience in the Depression. My grandfather had a job which he was able to retain. They did a lot of things that she thought were fun but were actually to make money, like picking apples and gardening in the graveyard. So, she doesn't have any unhappy memories from that time.
She was told when she was in high school that she could go to college either in New Jersey or somewhere where we had relatives. It turned out that part of the family had come over from Wales and were working in Vermont in the slate mines. So, she looked up Vermont colleges, found Middlebury College, and applied, and she didn't get in. My grandmother wrote a letter, which I actually still have, saying, "You guys have made a mistake. My daughter was the valedictorian of her high school class. She wants to go to Middlebury, and you should let her in." And they said, "Okay." So, she went off to Middlebury to major in French. It's a liberal arts college, and she took a physics class, absolutely fell in love with physics, majored in physics, graduated in 1951. So, in a sense, she was really the pioneer in my family. She went to work at Federal Telecommunications Lab as a technician after that, and met my dad. They were married a year later. He went on to work at Bell Labs, and she became a full-time mom. She just loved being home with us.
Alice, was your dad's professional identity a physicist, would you say?
So, you grew up knowing what a physicist did, at least at an industrial research level.
Yes and no. I mean, my dad didn't talk a lot about what he did at work. He would come home and pick up the newspaper. I guess I would say I knew that physics was a thing that you did, but I didn't know what he really did all day long at work. At home, he had a full machine shop where he spent his spare time. He had worked as a machinist before he went into the war, and he had all these hobbies. So, that's what I saw, that he was interested in a huge number of things. Everything that he did, he did with incredibly energy and passion, but didn't talk a lot about his day job.
Part of that, I think, was that he didn't have a PhD, so he wasn't making the decisions about what to do in his work, and I think he was a little bit unhappy about that. But somewhere in the late '50s, early '60s -- his expertise from his master's degree was gas discharge tubes, and he was hired at Bell at a time when they were thinking about using plasma lenses for communication. So, that was what he was supposed to be doing. But at the same time, it was the early days of the laser, and that involved gas discharge tubes. So, my dad thought, “Well, I know a little bit about that,” and he started a side project to look at helium neon plasmas. He knew a lot about optics and he thought that they could adjust the mirror to make that plasma lase in the visible.
So, again, this wasn't what he was supposed to be working on, but -- I always tell this story, the first time I saw the excitement of discovery was when he came home on a Saturday and said that he had just seen a helium neon plasma lase. As we all know, that's the 6328 line. It's a bright red line. He was so excited, and mom said to him, "What's that good for?" And he said, "Oh, it's just fun." He had no idea the importance of it. So, there were two things. My mom could kind of appreciate what he was doing, and I think that was a nice counterpoint. But also, that lesson for me that whatever he was doing was really exciting was an important thing as well.
I will mention also that I had two younger brothers. We were actually born one year apart. During my entire childhood, there was always this separation. My dad would say, "Boys, I'm going to be working on the car. Come and help me on the car." And I would say, "What about me?" And he'd say, "No, no, no, you'd get too dirty," or whatever. So, I was always doing stuff with my mom, and he was always taking the boys into the workshop, and the car, and everything. I told him later that he compromised my ability to succeed in grad school because I didn't even know the names of the tools when I got there. So, it's too bad. It's kind of a badge of honor at Bell Labs that you worked on your car. Back in those days, it was possible to do work on the car.
Alice, the nature/nurture question, growing up in your household, and your own developing interest in science. Clearly, you grew up in an environment where you were exposed to these kinds of things, but the interest of wanting to get greasy with your dad in the garage, that came from you. You didn't have to think along those lines. So, to what extent did you develop your own interest independent of those limitations, and to what extent was it something that was just around you, and that's what felt natural?
That's pretty interesting. I could have made a kick of a bigger fuss when he told me I wasn't able to help out in the shop. But I had so many --
Or you could have done Barbie dolls and bake muffins, also.
Yeah. I was interested in a lot of things, and I was good at a lot of things. I think, although I was particularly good at science and math, in school I liked everything. My brothers and I talked sometimes about how my parents made it clear that it was really important to do well in school, but they never said anything and never talked about grades. I can't remember ever having a conversation about grades, except a little bit when we had a good report card. It was definitely that was just the expectation. You know, okay, check. And I also never remember them making it clear that we should go into a technical field, but just that it was a possibility. I think the only time I had any inkling of what they really thought was when I changed my major in college from chemistry to physics. My dad said, "Okay, well, now you've finally seen the light." That was funny.
Alice, did you have good math and science teachers in high school?
I did. I went to high school in the town that Bell Labs was in. I think probably there were a lot of Bell Labs families around, so the education was a value in general. I had extraordinary math and science teachers, except physics. My chemistry teacher was great, my math teachers were great, but the physics teacher was terrible. When I got to Middlebury, I was certainly well prepared. I was very influenced, obviously, in high school, with the quality of teachers. So, I was interested in chemistry when I left high school.
Alice, between financial considerations, geographic considerations, and your grades, what kind of schools were you advised were within reach, that you should apply to?
Well, the high school guidance counselor thought I should go to Princeton and was pushing very hard. I'm sure that would have been good for him. I was not at all interested in Princeton. I had heard my entire life about how bucolic Middlebury was, and I thought I should go there. We went up to visit a September day -- it was the only college I visited -- beautiful September day. We picked up a hitchhiker, who was a college student, who told us what a great experience he was having. I was shy and sheltered. That's the best way I could describe my childhood. So, I said, "I want to go to Middlebury," and I applied early decision. That was the whole college process. I was incredibly lucky that Middlebury had a wonderful science program. It wasn't something that I was even looking into. I was just very naive about all of that, as were my parents, I think.
What year did you start at Middlebury?
I started in 1972, just after the '60s and --
Yeah, this is really at the tail end of all the campus protests. Was that still going on at Middlebury at the time?
Not really. The biggest thing that was happening at Middlebury was the opening up of the dorms, and the male/female thing. That was definitely a big deal. But I don't remember, really, any protests. Or not a lot of protests. It was a very isolated location, obviously. Small town Vermont.
What were the circumstance of you declaring the major, eventually, in physics? Was it a professor? Was it a class?
Like I said, I started out thinking chemistry, and actually had a great experience the first year in chemistry. Some of the labs were just open-ended labs, which was fun for me. But then, the second year, I had to take organic chemistry, and also Physics 101. And organic chemistry, in those days, we didn't have hoods. So, chemistry was done in an open room, and I have a very sensitive sense of smell, and I couldn't stand it. The course was taught by a great professor. Everything was NMR based. I was fascinated with trying to figure out structure by NMR. But I just couldn't stand the smell. And in the meantime, I'm taking physics. So, I'm memorizing organic chemistry molecules and reactions and everything, and I'm taking physics where it was one equation, and I could solve all the problems. And I had loved calculus, and I just realized this is why I studied calculus. So, I just loved it. I actually tried to do a joint major, a double major. I talked to the chairs of both departments. The chemistry department said no, and the physics department said sure. So, I switched my major to physics.
Alice, to go back to your childhood, and sort of observing physics by osmosis, once you got your sea legs at the college level and you realized this is what you wanted to focus on, how well did you appreciate the binary of physics between the world of theory and experimentation, and where did you see yourself on that spectrum at that time?
I will say, to be completely honest, I don't have the same intuitive feel for physics that my father does, and one of my brothers also. It was always hard for me. The intuition about solid state physics, everything, I worked really hard. I always liked more the experimental side of things. I knew I wasn't going to be able to be a theorist, but I still loved being immersed in thinking about things in that way. I think my dad could have been a theorist. Even long after he retired, he could sit down with me and have a conversation about what I was doing and appreciate, in depth, the important questions. I've never had that. I think I almost made up for the lack of the intuition by just being stubborn, or working hard.
Were there any laboratory experiences or summer internships that were particularly formative in your intellectual development?
Yeah, so two things, I think, were important. That small college environment was very supportive, both the students and the faculty. But the best thing that happened to me, and it was just completely fortuitous, was I had a childhood friend whose mother worked in HR at Bell Labs, and they were starting a summer research program for women and minorities. In a Bell Labs way, what happened was they looked around and said there aren't too many women and underrepresented minorities here, and really, to have a creative environment, we need diversity. They heard from their recruiters that there are no candidates out there, so they said, well, we'll have to create the pipeline. And the start was the summer research program.
So, that was for undergraduates, women and underrepresented minorities, to spend a summer in a research lab with the Bell Labs scientists. That first summer, they didn't have enough people signing up, so this mother of my childhood friend said to me, "Well, you're majoring in physics. Why don't you apply for this summer research program?" My dad worked at Bell Labs, but he knew nothing of this! There were no family connections involved. So, I did, and my first summer there I worked for someone setting up a minicomputer. It wasn't a physics experiment at all. It was more like technician work. But just being in that environment, having lunch with the researchers, I loved it. Second summer, I went back, and I worked for Pat Cladis, who was at the time the only full-time female physicist at Bell Labs. This is summer of 1974.
Did that stick out for you? Was that important right off the bat?
Well, I was kind of used to not having a lot of women around. Pat was such an eclectic character. She was bigger than life, in some sense. She was very unique, but for more reasons than just the fact that she was a woman. Let's just say that. But she was very aware of her status, and I think what she did in terms of mentoring me really changed the course of my life. I just will be eternally grateful for that. She loved doing experiments. She just loved it. She would come into the lab, "Let's do this. Let's try this." Crazy things. But there were points of success for me so I could understand what it felt like to put an experiment together and to actually have something work. I was just transformed. She started to talk to me about my future, and I started to think that's the job I would like. Doing those kinds of experiments and making my own mind up about what was interesting and what was not. She set me up, then, with a mentor to apply to the graduate fellowship program that Bell Labs had started. So, that was instrumental. She was smart enough to not want to serve as my mentor herself for the fellowship program. She set me up with Doug Osheroff, who was someone renowned, beloved. How smart was that? And, so, yeah, when I applied for the fellowship, I got it. Doug was my mentor. So, she just really got me started on a very good path.
Alice, just to set the stage a little more broadly in terms of the social and political context, growing up, your exposure to Bell Labs and this experience, this is all still very much in the pre-breakup years where Bell is a monopoly, it's at the height of its power, it's supporting basic science, funding is not an issue. This is very much the milieu that you're operating in still.
Yes, yes. That's right. Those were golden years at Bell Laboratories. Even as an undergraduate, I was on a first name basis with everybody. It was an amazingly egalitarian organization in that sense. There were ~20,000 people working in the Murray Hill, NJ facility. I didn't have exposure to other activities, but was in the research area. I should mention, my dad was always working in the development area. That was a different environment, where they had deliverables. For him, he was not in charge of deciding what he was working on.
What was Doug's research when you first connected with him?
He had already done his Nobel Prize winning research as a graduate student.
Well, he didn't know it was Nobel Prize winning yet.
But he knew it was special. I can remember him dragging out the chart recorder trace from the day that he saw the superfluid transition in helium-3. You have to appreciate the phenomenal experimentalist he was -- he knew his experiment so well that he watched this straight trace as he's changing the temperature, and then there's a blip. It's fifty feet in on this chart recorder paper, and he knew there was something happening there. So, yeah, Doug was such a kind, gentle person. He didn't like people touching his experiments, so it was a little bit hard to work with him as a student, but as he continued on as my mentor, he was extremely good at connecting me with the right people, and basically recharging my batteries while I was in grad school. He was very well connected and just very generous with his time.
Alice, we're so deep into Bell Labs that we sort of skipped over the end of Middlebury and the transformation to graduate school. So, I'd like to ask, as a junior, as a senior, and to go back to that original question about the dueling interest between industry and basic science, where did Bell Labs fit into that in terms of what you wanted to do, not necessarily for a career. I mean, for a 21-year-old or 22-year-old, that's a very distant concept. But at least in terms of what you wanted to do to for minimally the next few years, what were your options? What seemed most compelling as you were wrapping up at Middlebury?
Well, I did realize that to do the things that I wanted to do, I needed a PhD. So, that was very clear, and partly informed, as I said, by my dad's experience. I wanted to be the one making the decisions about what was being done, not being told what to do. But in terms of basic research, I'd had a chance -- at Middlebury, one of my professors, Frank Winkler, had an arrangement with MIT where Middlebury students were able to spend their winter term on the MIT campus. He was an astronomer, and he was analyzing X-ray data from one of the satellites. So, I'd had that also very educational experience of doing astronomy, doing data analysis, and doing it in a graduate school environment.
So, I think, although it was interesting, I knew that the combination of working in a small lab with Pat and doing the astronomy where the experiment was done by somebody else, it made it clear to me that I wanted to do bench physics. Not particle physics, but physics where I could really touch something. Frank, actually, was quite instrumental in helping me think about grad schools, and what grad schools to go to. He had spent time at both MIT and Harvard, and Doug was pushing Cornell, which was where he had gone. So, I ended up applying to those three universities. I really didn't think hard about what I was going to do after grad school. Only that I needed to finish a PhD, that I needed to get a degree, and I was heading towards small experimental physics at that point. Does that answer your question?
What did you choose? I was waiting for the punchline.
Well, I made the wrong choice. During that winter term, I had been living in the dorm at MIT, and I remember going to a Pink Panther movie in the big auditorium there, and the MIT undergraduates were so immature compared to the more sophisticated Middlebury undergraduates. Their behavior in that movie was child-like, and I thought, I can't possibly go to an institution like this. They were all men, to begin with. I need to go to a university with a more balanced student body. So, I interviewed at Harvard, and as I said, I also interviewed at Cornell. There were not many women that had had a good experience in physics at Cornell at that time. Harvard was welcoming to me, and a smaller institution. I wanted to go to the city because I'd been in the country for so long, so I chose Harvard.
And this is the department of physics. You're not thinking engineering, you're not thinking applied physics even, because Harvard had an applied physics program at that point, or at least an EE program.
Really no engineering, but applied physics. So, there was a lot of arrogance there. I can remember one of the physics professors saying that when Schrödinger's equation was written down, everything else in solid state physics was applied. Okay.
Yes. My advisor, Michael Tinkham, had a joint appointment between physics and applied physics. Engineering really wasn't even part of my vocabulary back then. My dad didn't think of himself as an engineer, and there was no engineering at Middlebury, so I was really only looking at physics, and I was in the physics research area at Bell Labs. So, again, engineering wasn't part of the vocabulary. I had no awareness of engineering. But Tinkham group, actually, was doing solid state physics. It was pretty basic research even though it was in the applied physics lab. It was in the Gordon McKay Applied Physics Lab. Very, very basic research.
Did you go in, Alice, to Harvard, with the sense that Bell would continue to be an intellectual home for you, that you would have one foot in that world even during graduate school?
Well, I think one of the nicest things that they did for me, with respect to the fellowship program, or for any of us that had the fellowship, was first, they made me free to the faculty at Harvard. So, that was huge. Secondly, they provided me with a mentor. That was Doug, and he was my connection into Bell the entire time I was in graduate school. They paid for frequent trips back to Bell, for me to touch base with Doug. I lived in that town as well, so I was home anyway visiting my family. That combination was really, really important.
When I started at Harvard, there were 100 graduate students in the physics department. There were only three women, and the other two dropped out within the first two years. So, it was grim. I had come from a very supportive undergraduate experience, faculty and students, into an experience where every other student looked at me like, if you succeed, I'm not going to succeed. There's not enough room for all of us. It was tough. Plus, I had a limited physics background. I'm there with students who'd gotten physics undergraduate degrees from full research institutions, so many of them had taken graduate level courses already as undergraduates. Middlebury had four professors in the physics department, so I had a limited palette.
I struggled in the courses, for sure, and had a couple of bad experiences with professors who were just not used to having to explain anything. I realized I could cross register at MIT, and they had a big emphasis on teaching, on pedagogy, at MIT. So, I took most of my courses there, in the end, and then realized that actually my experience as an undergraduate was really very different from what it would have been like as a graduate student. In fact, my experience at Harvard was quite isolating, because Harvard always focused on the undergraduates, which was starting to become a diverse population. But the graduate students were incredibly isolated in each of their departments. In the end, the reason I made my choice, turned out, in some sense, I didn't make the choice for the right reasons. Let's just say that. But it worked out.
Were there any difficulties, administratively, in terms of choosing an advisor, figuring out what credits you needed, having everything figured out before your defense?
I actually don't remember exactly how I found my way to Tinkham's group, but it probably was partly Doug's influence, and also partly that I was, at that point, enamored with low temperature physics. I loved liquid helium, I loved liquid nitrogen, and I wanted to do bench top physics, and Tinkham was the person doing that at Harvard. He had never had a female student, but I was coming with a fellowship. So, it wasn't a huge risk he was taking. I was told later that he had called the group together to discuss my candidacy and shared with them that, since he had taken a few years earlier a male student with a ponytail, he could probably handle a woman. The male student with a ponytail, I have to say, is Dave Weitz, who's now a professor at Harvard and one of my friends. But I felt that Professor Tinkham was never that comfortable with me. He had sons, so he didn't have experience with daughters, and I just never developed the kind of rapport with him that I saw the other students developing. But he always did right by me in terms of supporting me. And he was a theorist. The group was an experimental group, but he only really got interested in a student when they had data. It took me a very long time to get data so it was tough. If I had known at the end of my third year that it was going to take three more years, I would have quit.
Alice, this is a very unique arrangement where the lead professor is a theorist running an experimentation group. What were some of the advantages or disadvantages in that, looking back?
Well, there was a junior faculty member who was running the experimental activities. That was Bill Skocpol at the time. They had a history of hiring junior faculty to do this kind of thing, associating them with senior faculty, and then not giving them tenure. So, there were a long string of junior faculty who had had that role in the Tinkham lab. Bill was just the last one. And actually, at the time, Bill was -- there was a lot of tradition in the way that they did things, and Bill was, I felt, not super helpful to me, because I started out with zero knowledge. Whether that was good or bad, I think, in the end, it was good. But at the time, it was terrible.
Why specifically? What was so difficult?
Well, I didn't know anything, and I didn't want to display my total ignorance. I felt that the questions I was going to ask -- there was something that needed to be done on a cryostat, and I didn't know the name of the tool, or the existence of the tool that I needed to fix that cryostat. So, I was watching other people, trying to pick things up in that way. But I started with a very blank slate in terms of my ability to do experimental work.
Perhaps I'll just observe editorially that an additional burden, as a woman, you're coming in just not having this background, but perhaps if you were a man, you would feel more comfortable saying, "Hey, what's that thing called?"
Right, exactly. I didn't want to display my ignorance. I already felt that I was on shaky ground, in some sense, and as the first woman, I needed to somehow set an example.
Obviously, there are no senior women faculty members either. That's like unheard of. That doesn't exist.
Absolutely not. Yeah, no examples. No examples.
Were there any dark moments when you wanted to walk away from all of it?
I can remember -- the other thing, when I was taking the courses and it was so hard, I was just not invited -- there were study groups -- I was either not invited to the study groups, or I was hit on by the other students. So, it just felt like I was on my own in terms of all that. But, by my third year, I had finished my courses, I passed my qualifier. I had a project that I was given, and I was apprenticed to a senior grad student who was very, very good to me.
When you say, "the project was given," from Tinkham, or from a junior person?
It was from -- it was just -- it was clear when I got there that I was going to be apprenticed to this student who was graduating, and I was going to take over his project. That was my opportunity, let's just say that. I don't even know exactly how that was communicated to me. That senior student was Miguel Octavio, a very, very wonderful person. He was working on a project where he'd made hundreds and hundreds of samples to get a few to work. I always thought, in the end, it had to with the fact that he was a smoker, and somehow the environment that he created around the sample because of the smoking was conducive to the experiment he wanted to do, because I could never get it to work. We were using very crude tools. We were trying to make very tiny tin micro bridges to study superconducting effects in a three-dimensional bridge. The microscope we had couldn't resolve the structure. So, we were just completely blind to do these things. That was tough.
I had worked at Bell Labs, so I knew that technology existed that could help. Right around that time, Professor Tinkham went off to spend a year on sabbatical in Germany, and there was not really anyone paying much attention to me. I went down to MIT and enrolled in a course in what was called sub-micron fabrication at that time -- it was semiconductor processing with Hank Smith. Another one of those life changing moments. That course was all about the technology to make structures that were even smaller than what I was trying to make. I was fascinated. At the end of that course, Hank invited me to come out to Lincoln Labs -- he had a joint position -- to actually work in the lab there and be hands on with those technologies. So, I just jumped at the chance. And when Professor Tinkham came back, to his credit, he said, "Okay, that sounds good." Although I had been told by Bill Skocpol that we don't need technology to do physics at Harvard, I think I quickly realized that the ability to controllably create these structures with known dimensions, not guessing, was huge.
In the end, something I'm very proud of, was that we actually built the first clean room at Harvard. We physically cleaned the room ourselves, and put fabrication capability in there. We got rid of the dust, we got rid of the junk, and we created a space where we could do processing and make these small structures. That was the beginning of introducing that kind of processing technology there -- soon we added an e-beam lithography set up -- and it completely made my thesis possible. So, that was a turning point, because before that --
I was just going to say, here's a turning point. So, Alice, at this moment, what are you discovering about yourself, in terms of your talents, your intellectual inclinations, and the kind of physics that you wanted to do, longer term?
Yeah, so it was clear to me at that point that I was fascinated with the physics of submicron structures and I had the ability to make structures on that length scale. I also liked having an application. I wouldn't say that I even cared that much about exactly the application. But at that time, there was a big physics question in normal metals, non-superconducting metals, and I realized that with this technology we could access the dimensions that were needed to answer the theoretical question. So, that couldn't have been more exciting, to realize that we had this at our fingertips. So, the entire second half of my PhD was incredibly fun. Learning this technology, applying it, and taking the measurements. And then, of course, Tinkham was beside himself. The data was great. He learned an entirely new field -- I mean, it was easy for him, but he jumped right in.
Perhaps Tinkham also learned what a woman was capable of in the lab.
All of that. And just as a footnote, he did wait a while to take his second female student, but when he retired, he had all female students.
That is delicious. That's great.
Alice, intellectually, when did you know you had enough to defend? When was that point coming for you?
That's also a great question. I was waiting for him to tell me that I had enough. We wrote a Physical Review Letter on the results, and when we got the reviews back, they were all positive. He said to me, "You should frame this. You will never ever get these kinds of reviews again." He had never seen anything like it. But at that point, it just became clear. It was the spring of my sixth year.
So, you'll have to explain. What was it that engendered these positive reviews? What was so impressive about the science?
We made very tiny metal wires and we knew accurately the dimensions of these wires. That was usually something that people guessed at, and then became an adjustable parameter, if you will, in any kind of experimental -- any attempt to match the experimental data with the theory. We knew those dimensions, and we could access dimensions that were interesting for the low temperature electron-electron theories. So, we were providing credible data to answer a very current question. It was timely, in that sense, and somewhat lucky. Someone told me later that Prof. Tinkham was waiting for me to tell him that I was ready to graduate. I sometimes tell my students that, because I wish I had said something a year earlier. In the end, when I was interviewing, it was really clear that this project was my choice, my direction, because it was so different than what he had been working on. That helped me a lot as I was looking for a job.
Alice, sort of as a pie chart, if you looked at MIT and Harvard and their respective contributions to your graduate career, the things you were able to accomplish, who's over 50%, and who's under 50%?
MIT was actually over 50%, because they were willing to -- they had embraced new technologies and new methods. That was really important to the entire success of my project. Harvard eventually did, but MIT was leading.
Who was on your thesis committee?
Vic Jones, Michael Tinkham, I'm sure Bill Skocpol was. It could have been probably one or two of the theorists as well. To be honest, I don't remember. I do remember that after my defense, Professor Tinkham said to me, "By the way, did you get a job?" And that just sums it all up. So, here I am. Been there six years. As soon as he knew I wasn't interested in academia, he checked out. He didn't have any advice to give me.
How did you communicate that you weren't interested in academia? Were you overt about it? "I don't want to be a professor." Or did he sort of read between the lines as he observed your style and your inclinations?
I think I must have been overt about it. In the end, many of his students did go into academia, but most of them didn't. Back then, he felt it was a failure if a student didn't go into academia. So, I almost felt, in his mind, he was disappointed in my choice.
Now, would Bell Labs not have counted as academia? Because, Alice, I can't tell you how many people I've talked to who insist Bell Labs was more academic than academia was.
Right, but nonetheless, there's an arrogance amongst academics that wouldn't be willing to admit that. I think he did become proud of me later, but at the time, I felt that I had disappointed him. I didn't care, though. I didn't care.
So, what was your answer to Mike? Did you have a job lined up at that point?
Of course, I did. I absolutely did. I had interviewed, I had accepted a job, and I had told them I would start in August, and I planned to take a couple months off. I decided I needed to graduate in June so that I could really take some time off.
What did you do for this well-deserved break?
Yeah, I had time but no money at that point. So, I ended up visiting one brother in Illinois, and the other brother in California. So, nothing special, but I had a feeling it would be the last long break I would have, and it was, in fact, the last long break I have had. So, it was a good thing to do.
When you started, did you feel like you were in a career at this point? That you weren't a post-doc, that you weren't a graduate student, that you weren't an undergraduate, not just intellectually, but just in terms of your confidence.
That's a good question, and actually, I was a post-doc. I interviewed at three labs, and Doug was very instrumental in pointing out which of the places I should consider: GE Labs in Schenectady, IBM in Yorktown Heights, and Bell Laboratories. I thought very hard about going to GE. They worked very hard to recruit me, and they did a super job, for instance they told me I could afford a house in Schenectady. IBM seemed similar to Bell Labs, but the energy level was not what I had experienced at Bell. When I interviewed at Bell, it was definitely not a sure thing to get a job there, even though they had supported my graduate work. But because I had chosen this project and done it on my own, I think that gave me a little opening. In the end, there were at least three groups interested in me. One had a full-time member of technical staff (MTS) position in a materials area, and then a couple of post-docs. At the time, a post-doc was a two-year position with a one in four chance of staying on as an MTS.
Nonetheless, I took a post doc. I thought, well, let me see, can I make a transition from being a student to a post-doc to an MTS? Again, that was a very good choice, because the post-docs walked into an existing lab with a mentor and the mentor's job was, in the first year, to help the post-doc understand how things worked and get connected. And, in the second year, it was to give them some independence, to show them independence. Whereas someone who starts as an MTS at Bell Labs at that time, got an empty lab. I think your first inclination in that situation is to do the same thing you did in grad school. Many people starting as MTSs built a lab like what they had in grad school. Usually, by the time that lab was done, they'd looked around and figured out they'd wanted to do something else.
So, there were challenges with that. Whereas I started out trying something a little bit different. I had a chance to start right away doing experiments with a new group, and I had a chance to figure out how things work. By the time I finished my post-doc, I knew very well what the lay of the land was. And at that time, exactly, the breakup was happening. It was 1984. AT&T was divided up, and 10% of the researchers at Bell Labs were leaving to form Bellcore, which was the research organization of the regional phone companies. And the rest were staying with Bell Labs. At that time, there were, all of a sudden, a lot of openings.
So, this was a moment of opportunity for you, as you sensed it.
It was. Again, the post-doc hiring, in fact, any hiring at Bell Labs, was one manager deciding to hire one person. And for that manager, there was just a lot of risk. Bob Dynes was the person that hired me as a post-doc. I'm always grateful for that opportunity. He took a chance on me, and then he was a great mentor. When I came to the end of my post-doc, and I could have continued working in a similar area, I would have ended up competing with him, and he was really good. So, I took a job in a different department doing something completely new. There's a theme here. I always tell my students, if there's a fork in the road, take it. Because I had my low temperature background, I had my processing and my fabrication experience, and I brought it to a new area that really hadn't been involved with those things.
So, Alice, if I could interject on that point, just in terms of gaining a better sense of your style as a scientist, were there any open loops on your dissertation research that you felt compelled to stay on your radar to deal with, or did you look at that as a self-contained project, either administratively or scientifically, where regardless of those considerations, you wanted to move onto new things?
Yeah, so my post-doc was in low temperature physics. During my interview, somebody asked me about my thesis experiment, if I had looked at the density of states in these wires. I said, "No," and they said, "Well, of course, you can't tunnel into a one-dimensional wire" and I said, "Well, yeah, I think you could." That's probably why I got the job with Bob, and something that, a year later after pulling our hair out, we maybe regretted, but we ended up doing that tunneling experiment. So, I did close that loop on my thesis experiment during my post-doc. But I just wasn't married to that field at all. I really liked the fabrication piece of it.
Alice, as you say, this was a moment of opportunity as the breakup was happening, but of course, at the same time, lots and lots of senior people were jumping ship and moving to academia. Did you talk to them? Did you get the sense that this is what you should be doing as well? What were your considerations and perspectives at that point?
There was always the flow from Bell Labs into academia, and maybe in the back of my mind, there was a view that that was kind of a nice way to get into academia. Spend 10 or 15 year at Bell Labs developing a body of work, and then move to academia with tenure. At Bell, they didn't grow large groups. And maybe one of the reasons it was such a vital place was that the members of staff were doing the research. There were no students. I see my academic friends writing grants, mostly, and their students are the ones in the lab doing research. So, if you like doing research yourself, academia is not necessarily a good place for you. The flow into academia was when people had more ideas than they could accomplish by themselves, then they sort of naturally went into an academic environment where they could have a bunch of students and grow a group.
At that time, there was a huge amount of uncertainty. I did look at academic jobs when I was finishing my post-doc, but I was treated so poorly by those institutions when I interviewed that I had no desire to make that move. Let's just say, I was made to feel they checked the box by interviewing me. Yes, they interviewed a woman, but they were absolutely not interested in me. I had not experienced that at Bell Labs. At Bell Labs, it was, “Well, what can you do? Oh, you know how to do sub-micron processing. Well, I have an experiment which needs that skill, so let's work together.” So, that was a great, great, great environment.
So, what did you ultimately do after the initial post-doc?
I went to work in a group that was led by John Poate doing ion implantation. They had already ordered a very high dose ion implanter. This was completely different from what I had been doing before. And the person that had ordered that tool and was going to do that research left to go to Bellcore. Maybe I should have been more nervous about this exodus. Many times, in my career, people thought it's over here at Bell Labs, but I looked at the people that were left in Murray Hill, and these were my mentors. They were great. I knew it would be fine there. For as long as it was, I wanted to still be there.
And the idea, as explained to me by John, was that ion implantation was primarily done by people who were high energy beam people. He needed someone to be looking at ion implantation from the substrate point of view -- think about the silicon wafer that's being bombarded by ions. What's going on in that wafer? The solid state chemistry and physics of that. And that sounded like a neat and different thing for me to do, so I agreed. And the implanter was actually put into a lab which had a gigantic Van de Graaff accelerator for doing Rutherford backscattering. So, the analysis technique that I was using was Rutherford backscattering (RBS), and the czar of that lab was Walter Brown. Anyone in Walter's orbit was the beneficiary of his wisdom and guidance and challenge, and whatever. So, again, very lucky choice for me.
It sounds also like, to contrast your initial concerns at Harvard, where you were reticent to ask what this particular tool was, you had shed this at this point.
Yes, yes, yes. No more.
How much of that, Alice, is about simple seniority, and how much of it is about the culture at Bell, as opposed to the culture at Harvard?
Yeah, that's interesting. Bell was very focused on getting things done. So, anything to move you quicker to the answer was fine. I think I was probably mistaken, and I could have asked more questions at Harvard. At Bell, your currency was your skills, and my fabrication skills were state of the art, beyond what most people at Bell had at the time. So, that put me in a very good position to contribute to multiple projects, not just the main one that I was working on. Did I have some more confidence at that point? I don't know. Maybe.
What was the budgetary environment like during this transition? I mean, it would seem obvious that things are getting tighter, but was that actually the case?
Not obvious to me. So, that's a very special part of working at Bell Labs. The funding was something that came -- extra funding, say, beyond what you needed, your salary, whatever -- usually came from a conversation with your manager about an idea that you had, convincing that person, whose job it was to convince up the line, to find the funding for it. I got really good practice at the so-called elevator pitch, but I never wrote copious pages of justification for the research that I was doing. Again, in retrospect, I was successful in the scholarship, the papers I was able to produce, the things I was doing that were new. That was good enough. I had a yearly performance review, so they were giving me feedback on my performance every year. That's not something that happened in grad school at all.
What new science were you taking on at this point, and at what point did you start to become a mentor in your own right?
So, we got this high dose ion implanter, and at the time, people were using high dose oxygen implantation to make silicon dioxide layers, buried under the surface of silicon. There was interest in making electronics -- this was a long time ago -- making electronic devices with insulating layers underneath them. They were radiation hard devices, for instance, but they had other advantages. So, I thought, if we can make silicon dioxide, what about implanting metals and making metal silicides? And John Poate and the other ion beam implantation experts said, "No, no, no, that won't work, because there's a sputtering effect, and the cobalt is heavy, and you'll just sputter away the silicon."
But I did it anyway, and again, maybe a lucky happenstance, the implantation of the cobalt, done at high temperatures so as to not damage the silicon too much, actually created a buried metallic layer that was very, very high quality. This was a structure that couldn't be created by molecular beam epitaxy. People had been trying to make metal layers buried under silicon by MBE, but the metal always floated to the top. So, it was surprising, it was new, and it was also potentially very useful. That's maybe the start of my connecting with people thinking about electronics, and semiconductor electronics, and how some basic research might also have some spinoffs that could be interesting for applications. It was an exciting time. And around that time, I also started having students. The summer research program was still going on, so I actually had undergraduates in my lab over the summer, which was fantastic, and some of whom I'm still in touch with. Of course, this laboratory with Walter and RBS and the implanter was just a wonderfully exciting environment for students.
Alice, it sounds like, in contrast to so much that I've heard, just sort of generally, your science, the opportunities, the overall excitement, the breakup really did not existentially threaten any of these things.
That first breakup did not. No, it did not.
This was a risk that you took, and you felt rewarded by that risk.
It was, I'm going to say, a blip. 10% of the people left, but there were still 90% fabulous people there. And the culture and the values remained. There were exciting times after that breakup. There was cold fusion, and there was high-Tc superconductivity. When the first accounts of the high-Tc superconductor came out, there I was. I'd been working in a superconducting group as a PhD student. A higher temperature superconductor was the holy grail, and this was so much higher that it was astounding. At Bell Labs, because of the collaborative environment, we could quickly pull together a team that had every single capability that we'd need. Even though Bell Labs didn't discover that high-Tc superconductor, we got the patent on the composition because we were quickly able to put together a team that could analyze different samples. I was involved in that because I was doing Rutherford backscattering that could give some information about some of these materials that were being studied for high-Tc superconductivity. So, I actually got involved with that a little myself.
Alice, who were some of your key collaborators in academia, and of course, I mean just universities, since Bell continues to be, of course, an academic environment. Who were some of the key people you were working with? Where were you publishing? What kinds of conferences were you going to?
Conferences were a very important part of what we did. I think that's the way we stayed in touch with what was going on in academia. So, American Physical Society conferences and Gordon conferences, which I liked in particular. Those were smaller, more intimate conferences. I went to the ion beam conferences, which were every two years. Those were international conferences, so Bell Labs sent me to those. And then, I was taking part, as well, in what was called the Electron, Ion, and Photon Beam Technology conference. That was the group of people that were pushing the frontiers of fabrication. I kept in touch, during that time, of course, with the Tinkham group. Ironically, Bill Skocpol came to work at Bell Labs. He spent a sabbatical there, and then he liked it so much that he stayed. So, he changed from a person who disavowed technology to a person who embraced it. It was fun to watch his transition.
And then, a lot of the basic research in ion beam technology was being done by people like Jim Mayer at Cornell. It's an international group, so Jim Williams in Australia was another collaborator, and Walter and John brought people through the organization. So, through our group, they'd invite people to spend the summer, come for a week. So, I met people like Mark Brongersma, who's a professor now at Stanford, but as a student. Jan Linnros, now a professor at KTH in Sweden. And these are people that I am still in touch with. So, we shared that. Harry Atwater came through, now a professor at Caltech. So, I don't know if this gives you an idea, but this was an environment which was embracing a lot of exchange and interaction with people with different points of view.
Did you interface at all with collaborations happening in the national labs? Was there anything happening in that world that was relevant for you?
I can't remember any national lab -- I guess the one person that I know from the national labs was because there was a lot of microscopy needed when I was doing ion implantation, and Steve Pennycook was a first rate microscopist. He was obviously someone I got to know at the conferences. And I know there were other microscopists at Argonne as well, but not as much. No, not as much. A part of evolution of the executives at Bell Labs was time at Sandia, because Bell Labs was managing Sandia. Bill Brinkman spent three years at Sandia before coming back as head of the research organization. But I can't say that resulted in a lot of collaboration.
I guess, one of the things I was getting at is that at Bell, of course, you are sheltered from grant applications and things like that. So, I'm trying to get your sense of some of the funding agencies, like the DOE, the NSF, that might have been supporting, not particularly your research, but the broader field that you were a part of.
I did get involved with grants, and things like that, in later years, when, financially, things got tougher at Bell Labs. We were obviously a huge resource in terms of reviewing grants, but I don't remember being included, and I have no idea whether other people were or not. Remember, correspondence was handled, when I got there, mostly by mail. So, you could talk on the phone, but when I started, email wasn't even a big thing. It was harder to do longer distance collaborations. Conferences were really the opportunity to interact.
Right. Alice, to set the stage, you emphasize the first breakup wasn't that bad. So, let's foreshadow to the second. So, first, orient me chronologically. Roughly, what time period are we talking about now?
So, the second breakup, I think of as the split into AT&T, Lucent, and NCR. That was happening -- I think it happened in 1995. I say that because I was on maternity leave at the time, and I got a call. That was more earthshaking because that really did divide up the research area. Certain areas of research went with some of the companies, and that was a big change, a dramatic change. By that point in my own career, I had moved into optics. Optical materials, optical fiber, optical technology. And I also had gotten married. My husband moved into silicon device technology. It was a big change, but for a few years -- maybe until 2000 or 2001, it was a very exciting time. That's because Lucent, I think, felt unleashed to develop technology not just for the Bell system, but for anybody. Wef had to compete. There was an imperative to do that. And the research area was a resource for that.
So, by that point, I was in a group which maybe we would think of as more engineering. I was no longer in the physics research organization. I was managing a department in a more materials-oriented organization. And the connection to the business was fascinating. I loved going down to Allentown, to Breinigsville and seeing the factory, thinking about the challenges that they had, because they were inventing and developing and manufacturing all at the same time, for what, at the time, they thought was a huge demand for optical components for extra bandwidth. It turned out to be a bubble, and the company probably never recovered form that. But before the bubble burst, it was very exciting. A few years later, in 2002, my husband’s group went with Agere Systems when it was spun out. So, it was not just the company breaking up, but a little bit, our own very nice commuting situation going out the window.
Alice, tell me about how you got involved in optics. What was exciting in the field at that point, and what did you feel like was your expertise that you could contribute to this work?
They were very anxious to have more diversity in the upper ranks at Bell Labs so they had been asking me for a while to take this or that management position.
You mean, scientific diversity, or gender diversity?
Gender diversity. But everything was going so well. I loved doing research. Why would I take a management position? Then, I realized, at some point, yes, I needed to -- it was for the community. I needed to do it. And I also knew I would be good at it. I had an opportunity to lead a group that did novel optical materials. It was in a completely different area of the research organization from the one I had been in. So, I wasn't going to be in a position of managing people I had been colleagues with. That was important to me. And it was Kumar Patel, actually, who asked me to take the job. He told me, "I know you're having a great time doing research, but this job, maybe spend 5-10% of your time managing. No big deal." Of course, that wasn't true, but I agreed to do it.
That group was a resource for the optical fiber department, with the growth in optical communications and the challenges of creating the fiber, and it grew into the challenge of creating fiber devices as we tried to create optical communications networks. I was there just at that time. I can remember that we had committed to building an undersea fiber that was amplified with erbium-doped fiber amplifiers. Erbium-doped fiber amplifiers, that was a research project. So, to put them undersea meant that the engineering, the development that had to go in, we had to understand in great detail what was going on in those fibers, in the lasers, in everything, or the system would fail. It wasn't a system you were going to dig up if something went wrong. I can remember meetings led by Bill Brinkman, where the business team, the development team, and the research team would get together in a room. We would go through their challenges, and the next month, we would bring back our answers to their questions, and they would get us a whole new set of questions. Those answers were shaping the development of that product, the amplifier, as well as the system. That feedback from the customer to the researcher, informed everything that I did for the next ten years. My need to talk directly to the customer about what their challenges were, and not have that interpreted through three levels of management or development team, or whatever, that turned out to really be a way to have important impact.
And that continued -- that was the fiber amplifier development. We were developing erbium-doped glasses. I moved into novelty fiber development, and we interacted with the fiber factor in Norcross, just outside of Atlanta. This is a time when the entire team would fly down once every quarter to debrief to the customer, the people that were manufacturing the fiber. Again, that back and forth was very rich, and there was tremendous respect on both sides. Our appreciation of the challenge they had to manufacture this fiber, and their appreciation of our understanding and our ability to help them with important questions was very neat. Sometime during that time, I was talking to my manager -- his name was Alastair Glass, probably the best manager I ever had, very enlightened -- in a performance review. I told him that if it ever became available, the job I wanted was managing the integrated optics lab.
What was compelling about integrated optics for you?
It was the combination of the work I had been doing in optical materials and optical fiber, and my earlier fabrication experience -- semiconductor processing, or sub-micron processing. So, integrated optics involved using all of those high-tech processing technologies, but making optical waveguides instead of semiconductor electronics. I thought that would be a great opportunity for me to get back into thinking about the fabrication questions that so interested me. And it was.
Alice, to what extent is the dot com boom relevant to all of these considerations?
During all of this time, we were in the boom, so we had copious funding. Money was not an object. Everything was focused on speed. We were sometimes doubling our production every couple of months. People were willing to do whatever it would take to get that product out the door. So, there were no barriers in terms of funding. Only in terms of creativity and really being able to solve the problems and guarantee the kind of reliability. So, just for perspective, the system still needed to have 25-year life. To guarantee 25-year life, you really had to understand deeply the physical mechanisms going on in the materials.
One example I can think of, we had a researcher who was making gratings in optical fiber by irradiating the fiber with UV light through a phase mask. I was involved with making the phase mask. That involved semiconductor processing. But that grating, the idea that you could imbed it right in the fiber, was very important. It meant that there was no loss. There were no connectors. There was no loss to get into the grating, and that grating was incredibly useful for reflectors for these systems. But the question became, what was the mechanism that enabled the embedded grating, and how can we be sure it's going to last for 25 years? A fun story, my husband was very interested in defects of glasses as a PhD student. One evening, we were talking over dinner about this challenge, and he said, "Well, there are probably defect states. You can just anneal out the lower energy defect states." And sure enough, he was able to help us develop an accelerated aging process to show that we could create a structure that was going to survive 25 years after some accelerated aging. So, that was nice.
Alice, I wonder if you could reflect a little on, perhaps, what some of the advances on optical theory were over the past decade or so, that made all of these developments possible.
That's an interesting question. One thing I have reflected on this past year is how we laid the foundation for the high bandwidth communication system that goes right into every home that made it possible to do Zoom and move to this remote environment. At the time, we had imperatives-- we were making decisions about what to do, and in-building wireless was a challenge that we thought we could put it off because no one would really need in-building wireless. This was back before 2000. In terms of the challenges, there were material challenges as I mentioned, trying to get the loss out of the fiber. These are all directly related to the cost.
But understanding the mechanisms of that loss, and then the processes to eliminate that involved some theory. There was a lot of theory involved with the transmission--people were trying to push the idea of a soliton-based system, which would be a little bit more immune to loss and other perturbations. And then, as we got into higher bandwidth applications, we interacted -- not me, but we interacted a lot with the mathematicians who were developing the compression algorithms to make it possible. I mean, they even put video over twisted pairs now. I don't think of that as solid state physics theory, but obviously, it is very theoretical. So, those were going hand in hand. The development of the optical communication technologies and systems, and then the compression and the ability to decide how all that information is going to get sent over the system, and the design of that network.
What about on the technological, or the computational side? There's so much advance that's happening now with materials with computers. What's happening in that world that's allowing for these advances as well?
So, you mean, at that time, or that's happening now?
I mean both, but starting, really, as you described it, all of these advances at that point, twenty-some years ago.
No one was using computation, and most of these things were not driven by theory. So, almost everything, all the advances were made experimentally. And I think, at the time, I wasn't in the physics area, but I expect that they were still focused on things like high-Tc superconductivity. What was the mechanism of high-Tc superconductivity in lanthanum barium copper oxide? There were people thinking about quantum effects, but there was a pretty big gap between that and what we were doing on an everyday basis with the business. So, I had made a fairly complete change into the support of the business. I was very happy there. So, maybe I felt impactful. I probably started to slip away from thinking that the deeply theoretical work without any particular reason was... I just knew that wasn't really where I needed to be.
Alice, you're so deep in the science. I wonder if you and your colleagues, at this point, stepped back and realized the broader historical import of what it was that you were creating. This is the world that we're living in right now. What we're literally doing right now is only possible because of these advances 20 years ago. Did anybody see this is the broader context?
Not really. There may have been some people that had that kind of vision, but we were very busy in dealing with the everyday challenges, which were intellectually challenging, for sure. Obviously, there was a vision driving what we were doing but the technical challenges were so great that those of us interacting with the business, pretty much had our heads down figuring that out. I'm sure there were other people that had a bigger view.
So, if it wasn't those highfaluting concepts, what was it that was so compelling? Was it just the science that you were able to do this? Was there an endpoint that was particularly satisfying to you?
Well, the endpoint was actually being able to watch these ideas, the things that we had done, move into production and be built into these systems and deployed. I found that to be exciting. Meeting the people in the factories and understanding what they were accomplishing was -- I have a huge amount of respect for that, and I found those challenges interesting. And there was, if you can imagine, a lot of physics actually thinking about some of the things that they would do. Some of the empirical things that they were doing, if they had understood deeper, maybe, the theory, they could have appreciated that. So, that back and forth was very interesting to me as well.
But there were important decisions that needed to be made. I can remember a meeting where we were deciding between two technologies for multiwavelength lasers. Big teams passionate about two different approaches. This was Bell Lab's thing. Everyone got in a room, and we hammered it out, and a decision was made in the end. But everybody felt good about that decision because the honest technical exchange had happened. That was another hallmark of Bell, I think, the ability to talk honestly and openly about the technical challenges.
One thing I wanted to mention before I forget, because it just hopped into my mind. That is, the tradition at Bell Labs of everyone going to the seminars -- I mentioned that people were coming through very often. We were just outside New York City, and every week there was a schedule of the technical talks. People went to technical talks even if they were outside their area. So, that's a habit that I have to this day. When I got to academia, I was dismayed to see that people only went to talks in their area.
Alice, this is what I'm talking about with Bell being more academic than academia, because academic means you are open to new fields of inquiry. You want to learn beyond your little bubble.
Right. Academia tends to be change-averse. Bell Labs was embracing change. Change is opportunity. If there was a change in leadership, it just meant opportunity for somebody else. If there was a change in the product line, it was an opportunity for my technology to get accepted. So, it was, in that sense, a dynamic environment. So many things happen at the intersection between different disciplines. David, no one ever asked me what my degree was in. It was irrelevant.
And as your career trajectory up to that point demonstrates, you hopped from project to project.
Yeah. I tell students now, when we talk about working at a big company or small company, that even though I worked at the same company for 30 years, I had a chance to do a tremendous number of different things. And the stability in the sense of employment really made that possible. Whereas, in a startup, you would probably do everything in the first job, but you may not have a job in a few years. So, I think there's a bit of a thinking in academia that an industrial job is just a one-way street, but I would say that my graduate student friends who went into academia are probably still doing superconductivity.
For better or worse.
Yes, fine. But it is certainly -- the whole system is set up to encourage you to stay in the field that you are known in.
So, Alice, that's a great opportunity to ask, the advantages between -- I don't want to say dabbling, because of course, all of the projects you've been involved in, you've been deeply involved in. But is there some inherent advantage to a research career that's spent more narrowly focused? Just by definition, can you go deeper and accomplish more if you're thinking about superconductivity, if you're narrowly focused on superconductivity for 25 years, as opposed to all of the different things that you've been involved with. I wonder if you could reflect how that's affected your definitions of success, and how you feel like this advances science generally.
That's a very good question. When I look at someone like Michael Tinkham, he did group theory and superconductivity, but obviously, he was just completely immersed and able to make such insightful additions to the intellectual content in that area. But I actually -- I like to think that just sort of poking him out of his rut a little bit into thinking about normal metals was not a bad thing. So, I think that somewhere in between is probably the ideal place to be, so that you have the freedom to dig deep when you get interested in something or you need to understand it. In a research and manufacturing environment, if you have to understand the 25-year life, you need to understand what's happening with those defects, you have the freedom to dig into that, but the choice is not wide open. Someone really cares about the answer. On the other hand, if you can choose whatever you want, and you can dig deeply in it, there may be one or two people in the whole world that even care about the answer. So, it's a little bit the kind of impact you want to have, and what's important to you.
To foreshadow ahead a little bit, when you talk about the dot com boom and money not being an issue, but then what comes later when you start thinking about grant applications, is this a sudden process, or is this more of a gradual thing where you see the writing on the wall that eventually, if you want to continue doing the science that you're doing, there needs to be outside support for that to happen.
Yeah, it was gradual, but the worst thing that happened was the realization that the company, Lucent, had behaved in a way which was not completely -- the business practices were not completely above board. For instance, the company was loaning money to the customers to buy the product. So, that was a very --
Alice, were you senior enough at the time to understand this, or is this retrospective understanding?
This came out later. I was not in a position to be anywhere knowledgeable about that. All I saw from my end was the huge demand for product, and the doubling of the production every two months, and just the creativity that was required to support that. And then, that just stopped. And the product piled up on the loading dock, because there really wasn't a customer. And in a matter of what seems like months but was probably years, all the development that we had put into automation and thinking about how to manufacture things more effectively was just -- not even put on the shelf. All manufacturing shipped offshore to China. Everything was done manually there. So, a huge amount of technology was transitioned internationally, and we lost our customer. It was awful.
Maybe it's a naive question, but what exactly is the problem with lending to customers, if you could explain the larger matrix of processes and considerations?
Well, you're lending them the money to buy your product, and if they can't pay back, then they have the product, you've lost the money, so it's almost like you've lost twice. But to do that -- I mean, maybe there are some situations where you can do that and be confident, but this was being done to companies that really had no prospects of, or were not able to pay back.
So, this is not just bad business practice. This is morally dubious, you're saying.
I think so, yes.
When did all of this translate to you starting to think about an exit strategy?
Well, it was still a relatively long time. What happened was, around that time, there was a merger. The company was in trouble. Bell Labs was part of Lucent, and there was a merger with Alcatel. It was billed as a merger, but it was really an acquisition. I think we all went into that with great hopes. There was some sense in which the companies had similar heritage. We thought maybe similar values. There was a research area in Alcatel. Alcatel was a holding company. So, we were almost excited to broaden the scope of Bell Labs internationally, and again, we would be part of a company with some manufacturing. So, we came back into an environment where there was a customer.
And then, after that, there was the slow realization that they didn't have the same values. During that time, there was a lot of reflection done by people at Bell Labs who had been there for their whole career about what was special and what had happened. I also, during that time, redid the museum including a novel, interactive display to highlight what had been done. This was an opportunity to get immersed in the history and the neat things that had happened there. It made me feel, again, very lucky to have been there. I reflected at the time about the managers that I'd had and what they allowed me to do. I will say, my children were in high school by then, and I will backtrack and say that my husband, when his organization went to Agere in ~2002, commuted to Pennsylvania for a couple of years, but that was just not feasible. So, around that time, we thought about leaving because he needed to do something else.
Orient me again on the chronology. What year are we talking about here?
Early 2000’s, something like that. We thought about going together to find something. And then, I said, "What do you really want to do?" He had always had really eclectic interests, and he said, "I really want to communicate science to a bigger audience." So, great. He went back to school and got a science journalism degree at NYU. He's been a science writer ever since. So, that was a phenomenal career change for him, and also meant he had total flexibility to move to Boston in the end. During this time, he was working from home. Our kids were in high school, and I thought I would try to hang on until they finished. But I started to explore other options, mostly because I really felt that the things that I thought were important in the organization were no longer valued. I'd had such an amazing experience. How could I sit around and watch that happen, watch it degrade?
Alice, again, going back to your dad and being immersed in Bell as an undergraduate and really experiencing the golden years, did you intuit at this time that it wasn't just what was happening at Bell, but that this was the end of an era in the United States in terms of support for basic science?
Very much so. Actually, I can remember going to Washington DC -- I gave testimony to the House Appropriations Sub-committee on commerce, justice, and science. I talked with them about, for the US, the importance of trying to foster university-industry-government partnerships. In New Jersey, we had one for a while. It was involved with the nanofabrication center at Bell Labs. Rutgers was involved, and we had some government funding for that. I thought that was a great thing, and I thought that might solve what I saw as a deterioration in general. At this point, all of these research labs were closing or shrinking back. I thought it was a tremendous loss for the country. I guess, what I would say is it was also clear to me that academic research was not going to fill that gap. So, that partnership was a way, maybe, to fill the gap. But I haven't seen a lot of that happening. That was a very hard time.
What were you most concerned about in terms of, whatever your next step would be, that you would be able to continue doing the science that you wanted the way you wanted to do it?
When I graduated from Harvard, I left academia pretty fast. I wasn't really interested in pure research, and I didn't look back at that time. But I rethought that, and the thing that occurred to me was that I had not had any guidance or mentoring from my academic mentors about going into industry. Even though things had changed, I had had a taste of how good it could be working for a company that involved development and manufacturing. I thought that could be a great career for PhD students, and they shouldn't be made to feel that they're a disappointment if they went in that direction. I realized that I have something to offer. That was the first thing. And the second thing was I looked around, and despite everything that we had done at Bell to increase the numbers, there were still very few women. Why are women not looking at physics/engineering/STEM fields as a field that is accessible to them?
Maybe because their dads didn't invite them into the garage to fix the cars.
Absolutely. They were not encouraged from an early age -- I'm sure many think it's just not for them. There are so many layers to that problem, not the least of which is that elementary school, middle school, even high school teachers are not necessarily people who loved and felt comfortable doing science. They are, at this point, charged with educating our children. It was a sad day for us when the light went out of our daughters’ eyes about experimenting and trying things and doing science because of their experience in school. We were busy nurturing that, but eventually, it just got beat out of them, because the fun and the creativity was just not part of that -- not always, but often not part of what they were getting in school. APS has a physics teacher program for high school teachers. That is a huge, a really great idea, and I'm sure that's making a big difference.
But, you know, engineering isn't part of the conversation. I had a talk with a kindergarten teacher, the mother of one of my daughter's friends about engineering. She said, "Well, what is engineering?" When I started to describe it to her, she said, "You know, I do this experiment with the kids. I say to them, what floats and what sinks? Then we do this experiment to figure out what floats and what sinks. And then I say to them, how can we make something that sinks float? And of course, they make a boat." And I said, "That's engineering!" Unfortunately, to make that part of the vocabulary from an early age is still not happening.
Alice, for our last question for our session this morning, of course, you're worried about your own career, your own family, what's happening for yourself, but to what extent are you operating in a larger peer environment at Bell at this point where there are all kinds of accomplished scientists who are trying to figure out their next act. Are you collaborating with them in terms of career prospects? Is this a competitive environment because now, all of a sudden, the field is going to be flooded with eminent scientists who are looking for new jobs? What are the overall considerations at this point?
The backdrop of this was a huge layoff of people from Bell Labs. When we became part of an international company, since it very hard to lay people off in Europe, and most of that was employee reductions happening in New Jersey. At some point, I realized that I was actually helping people by helping their transition out. Rather than destroying their careers. I was helping their careers. So, we went from tens of thousands of people to hundreds of people. The building became empty. But I think it was when my manager, who was then president of Bell Labs -- at that point, I was chief scientist -- said to me, "We actually don't need a chief scientist anymore." So, that was the end of my role there. It was very clear. I felt good about the transitioning that I had been able to do to move my colleagues out. There are still good people there. Everyone who leaves says “It died when I left.” I try not to be one of those people, because I lived past many of those deaths, and I had a great time there past many of those deaths. But it is kind of a relief to be out and to be able to look back without having to give the company line about things. And the network that now I'm a part of is -- anyone who has spent a little time there is instantly a friend.
Yes. Well, Alice, that's a great stopping point for round one, and we'll pick up soon after.
[End Session 1]
[Start Session 2]
I appreciate, you've made this very easy.
Oh, my pleasure. Okay, so this is David Zierler. I'm back with Alice White on the same day, March 24th, 2021, to pick up our wonderful discussion so far. We can pick right back up, Alice, on this idea of you working with your peers, or you feeling like you were, or necessarily were not, part of this larger exodus of eminent scientists that were now thinking, what's my next move? So, what happens next for you as a result?
Obviously, I do start to think about what I would want to do next. I had plenty of time to do that, although staying became more and more painful.
Alice, was that about the building just being empty, or was it painful because obviously you couldn't be doing science at the level that you were accustomed to?
Actually, the latter. Just one example was that we had a very, I think, comprehensive and fair process for doing performance review. Several of us had documented this when we merged with Alcatel, and we shared it with the leaders, and they said, "Yes, that's good." And then, when we came to do our first performance review, we didn't do it that way. So I said, "Well, wait a minute. That's not how we do it." And they said, "Well, we know what you wrote, but that's not actually what we're going to do." That's a good example of the change in values. I'm still working for this organization, and I was asked to do things that I felt uncomfortable with, and I had never been in that position in my entire career before that. So, I needed to go. That's what I meant about the values, in some sense. The autonomy, and being self-directed, and how we valued the individuals and the work that they did.
Alice, what opportunities were there if you wanted to stay within the world of industrial research? Obviously, Bell, you're spoiled rotten for 30 years. There's not going to be anything like that. But I'm thinking about IBM. I'm thinking about the very origins or Google, Amazon, dot com companies like that. Were you thinking along those lines, or were you exclusively directing your efforts into academia, perhaps just by default, because maybe there wasn't anything else out there?
That's a really good question. I felt that I had had the best of the best already, in terms of my experience there at Bell. I wanted to try something different, and I thought that I could have more leverage in academia than I would by taking another industrial job. So, I think there would definitely have been a path for me to go into another company’s R & D management, or national labs. For sure, there were opportunities, but I really focused on academia. I started out thinking that because of the level I was at Bell that I would move into academia at a dean level, but a couple of interviews convinced me that if my point in going back was to interact with students and be a role model for students, then I needed to go in at a professor level, rather than some higher level.
When the opportunity to come to BU popped up, my initial reaction was, “I'm not a mechanical engineer. And their response was, “Well, look at what the faculty in mechanical engineering do, and then decide whether this is a department you could lead or not.” Very interestingly, mechanical engineering at BU is a department that has embraced emerging areas. So, nanotechnology and fabrication are in mechanical engineering here. Materials science is in mechanical engineering. Manufacturing and product design are in mechanical engineering. Almost all of the things that I really had loved and had experience in were in this department in one form or another. So, I decided to interview for the job.
To what extent did you rely on people already in academia, colleagues that you were working with beforehand, to give you advice, to think about the right programs, or was this very much you and this one opportunity and that's where you were focused?
No, I definitely relied on that extensive, extensive network. I had taken over as chief scientist from Rod Alferness. He had gone as Dean of Engineering to Santa Barbara. My first manager at Bell Labs was Bob Dynes, he became head of the UC system. So, there were many, many, many Bell Labs people in academia that were -- another person I can think of is Len Feldman at Rutgers -- just very candid and open, sharing with me their experiences and their advice. So, I did feel very well informed about how to go about looking, and the opportunities. It was just the tip of the iceberg in terms of using that network which has been so powerful.
To go back to these distinctions between the intellectual and the scientific differences of engineering and physics. Coming into this opportunity, where there any misgivings that you had, or any places where you thought maybe your expertise was being misapprehended? Or how did you work all of those things out?
Well, I knew that a physics department wouldn't give me a second look because of my industrial experience. I was unprepared for the resistance from engineering departments about my physics degree. That was particularly interesting since, as I mentioned to you, I hadn’t been asked what my degree was in for years. All of a sudden, it mattered that I had gotten a physics degree. But I would say half the faculty in mechanical engineering don't have a mechanical engineering degree. They have, often, degrees in applied physics, chemical engineering, material science and engineering. It's a wonderfully, in that sense, diverse group of backgrounds. So, they were maybe more open to accepting me than some of the other engineering disciplines would have been. Furthermore, the department at BU actually resulted from a merger of a manufacturing engineering department and a mechanical engineering department. So, my manufacturing experience really enhanced my application rather than counting against it.
Alice, what teaching had you done, if any, up until this point? Was this sort of stepping into a whole new world for you?
Well, that's the other thing that they were worried about, of course. I had mentored students, I had hired and mentored junior MTSs, I had given scads of talks about my work. There was no question, I think, that I was capable of communicating and teaching. But by taking the chair role, I didn't have to teach. So, that was also -- I sort of pushed that challenge down the road. At the point in which I will teach, I would teach something in nanotechnology, or a graduate course that would use my expertise. Something with manufacturing. Anyway, I haven't had to teach, other than to my graduate students.
We talked about this a little bit, but over the course of your time at Bell, how much did you interact with graduate students and post-docs? I'm thinking specifically of the unique arrangement that Tom Rosenbaum had as a graduate student where he figured out that he would be much better served hanging out much more at Bell Labs than at Princeton. And during my interview with him, I'll just share with you, that he was very much at the vanguard of graduate students coming to Bell Labs, but that it was happening more often, partly as a result of his experience.
Yeah, but it still wasn't a flood of students. I can think of a handful. Sue Coppersmith came down from Cornell and spent time in the theory department. Marc Kastner sent some students to work at Bell. I mentioned some people like Harry Atwater, Mark Brongersma, Jan Linnros -- those are all students coming from international institutions and spending time at Bell Labs, not to do their thesis though. There was a sense that it was just a huge advantage to do a thesis at Bell Labs because of the infrastructure and research. You're supposed to suffer a little bit when you do your PhD. I don't remember a lot of students coming to do their PhD. I had a couple of, maybe two or three, post-docs over the years. Not a lot. They were special people, but for the most part, I did my own research.
Alice, to go back to this idea that you enjoyed going to different seminars, that you enjoyed hopping form project to project, what were some of the joint appointments, or faculty arrangements that were part of the offer at BU that gave you some level or assurance that, at least intellectually, you wouldn't be wrapped up and bound by the kind of academic science that you were avoiding for all of this time?
Yes, how interesting. The dean is quite proud of the structure of the College of Engineering here. Rather than having ten or twelve small engineering departments, it has three large engineering departments, and two graduate divisions which are overarching. So, the graduate divisions offer degrees in material science and in systems, but they don't have faculty. For that reason, there are not a lot of departmental barriers. The environment is collegial and collaborative, or certainly that's the aspiration, and that was clear to me when I got here. It has been completely borne out. I think the thing that I wasn't prepared for, because I thought I'll come to BU and continue my optics work, and maybe I'll get more into packaging because it's closer to mechanical engineering and I know something about that, but I had sort of forgotten that I was going to completely lose my customer base because I had lost the connection to the factory. That was a little bit jarring.
I know I have colleagues who solved that problem by going back to doing something very fundamental in physics, or whatever, but I was very far away from that. I started going to faculty seminars, and everything I could find, to understand who was here and what they were doing. It's certainly a hub of biomedical engineering, and I happened to go to a seminar that Chris Chen gave, when he was a relatively new professor here. He was talking about his work in mechano-biology, tissue engineering. He was taking induced pluripotent stem cells and putting them on substrates that were stiff or soft, and he found that the stem cells on the stiff substrates differentiated into bone, and the cells on the soft substrates differentiated into fat tissue. So, the mechanical environment of the stem cells is incredibly important in their differentiation process.
That was mind boggling to me. These cells are spread out on a 2-D substrate. And the soft and stiff was done with pillars that were either short or high. If you put them in a 3-D environment, however, they behave completely differently. Chris said they really don't have a good, controlled way to create a 3-D environment where we can adjust the mechanical properties. That sounded like a good challenge for someone who knows about fabrication. At the same time, I was becoming aware of a nanoscale 3-D printer that had just come onto market. It was using two photon polymerization to make structures that were on the size of cells. So, 3-D printing with the resolution of a couple hundred nanometers that could print over a wafer with step and repeat. I realized that with that tool I would have the capability to create exactly those controlled mechanically interesting 3-D environments to do tissue engineering. I spent my entire startup budget on that tool, and I started doing something completely different.
In that sense, it's really not so different from your intellectual journey up until this point.
Yes, it's not, and it also continues that thread of fabrication as a -- sorry, Don is making lunch here. I don't know if you can hear me okay.
Okay. Anyway, I've always been fascinated with the fabrication technology, so this is just the next step, pushing the state of the art in terms of what we could do with that new tool.
What were some of your steepest learning curves at this point, in terms of new science that you needed to get caught up on?
Well, one thing I think about biomedical, biology, or medicine in particular, is that it involves an entirely new vocabulary. Entirely new. So, in industry, we would say you're going to take this research or this technology and commercialize it. In biomedical engineering, they say they're going to translate it. And that word translate isn’t obviously the same as the word commercialize, until you've heard it enough times that you realize that's what they're talking about. Take this in vivo environment and recapitulate a physiological function—that was a new term. Anyway, the point is that they all understand that vocabulary, and I had the technology that I thought would help them, but I was in a technology push situation as opposed to what I was used to which was a technology pull situation.
So, with the pushing, I needed to understand and learn their vocabulary. They weren't going to make the effort to understand what I was doing. I needed to understand their vocabulary, their challenges, and then present this as the solution that they were looking for. So, that was a big undertaking. I had a couple faculty who had done similar things, and they told me it would take a year or two of immersion. I would say that's what it took, and now I can listen to tissue engineering talks and understand probably 70% of what's being said. So, it was really very rewarding to be able, at this point in my career, to start something completely different, and then be able to have impact. That was fun.
Tell me how all of this came together to create the Multiscale Laser Lithography Lab.
First I bought the Nanoscribe tool, then I started talking about my capabilities at meetings, and people started coming to me with interesting challenges that they had that needed this kind of resolution and this printing. The people that came to me were not the tissue engineers, but people who were trying to work with animals and needed nanoclip attachments, or whatever. So, that's what my students and I start out doing, that kind of thing. Designing and building tools, and then getting involved with the experiments. In my lab, we made the structures, and then the students went out to the other labs and did the experiments. They were learning all kinds of different techniques at that point.
At the same time, I still have in the back of my head that the tissue engineering was an important application. So, I started to explore a collaboration with Chris Chen and a few others. We wrote a grant together that didn't get funded, which was good in the end, because then we wrote a much bigger grant. We made a pitch for an engineering research center to do exactly this, to take nanotechnology and other fabrication technologies that were developed in the semiconductor industry and use them to inform tissue engineering with the ultimate goal of making a patch of heart tissue out of a patient's stem cells. It was a long uphill battle, but after a couple years, we were able to land that center which has maybe 150 people now. And that's exactly what we're doing -- my students are building structures and growing heart tissue and measuring these calcium images that ten years ago I wouldn't have even known what that was about.
How much are you working with biologists specifically?
Mostly with biomedical engineers, but they're coming at engineering with a biology or a medical background. So, my students are learning how to do tissue engineering, but again, we don't do it in my lab. So, the best way that has worked, and it's tricky across these boundaries, I have a student who is co-advised by someone who does tissue engineering in biomedical engineering. I worked on the nerve clip....
Alice, you froze. The last thing I heard was "nerve clip," if you could just go back to that.
Okay. Yeah, that's interesting. It says the link is unstable. Well, let's see if it goes bad again. I'm actually on the BU network, so I don't know why that happened. Anyway, the nerve clip. For that project, I worked with biologists, while for most of the tissue engineering, we're working with the biomedical engineers who have all the background in tissue. But our engineering research center also has cardiologists, surgeons, MDs who are directing the medical choices we're making in terms of creating this patch. So, it's a very interdisciplinary team.
To go back to that original question I asked you about, for you, the importance and pleasure of having that consumer in mind. This is a very different field, a very different institution, but I wonder if that was a relatively smooth transition in terms of a very rapid but successful pivot to still having customers.
Yes. I understand how to work in that environment, and I think I think I'm teaching my students how to do that as well. That is not something they would ordinarily learn in academia, but I think it will really stand them in good stead. The ones that have graduated already have gone on to be easily employable, I would say. But they also get a feeling for what it would be like to work in an industrial setting, even though they're in academia.
Given all of your joint appointments at BU, what's an example of a program or a research project where you can really demonstrate how you're pulling from so many different areas of expertise and channeling all of this talent into a really impressive and satisfying deliverable?
Well, I guess that the -- I'm not sure that this answers your question, but I would say that the Engineering Research Center project, which is much bigger than a usual single PI type grant and it has deliverables and yearly reviews. So, it's quite unusual for academia, but it requires that we be doing something more than any one of us could do by ourselves. That’s, of course, something I'm completely comfortable with. As we crafted the goals of the program, we included electronics and sensing that needs to be done by an electrical engineer. We included the biomedical engineering, for instance, the tissue engineering that needs to be done by someone in that field. Then we included all of the characterization that would be done by someone with mechanics expertise, and finally we included computation and modeling. So, we also bring that in as well. It's been not unlike an industrial project. We are somewhat aligned in what we want to do. So, the ability to get people moving in the same direction happens by virtue of this overarching program. It's harder when everybody is their own little entrepreneur, in a way, to get people working together.
Alice, a great way, I think, to clarify exactly what you do because it's so complicated because you're involved in so many different things. What is a classic educational trajectory for a graduate student or a post-doc by the time you're interacting with them, in terms of their interest as an undergraduate, their talents in science, the kinds of things they want to do for a career? Who would be the generic ideal student who would pass through your program that would be the best fit in terms of what you can provide them and what they can provide for all of the things that you're involved in?
That's a great question. Actually, my first PhD student was someone who had a couple of years of industrial experience. She went from being an undergraduate to working at an engineering firm, and she realized she wanted to be her boss. She wanted her boss's job, but she had some maturity, and she had some experience working on multiple projects. So, she was comfortable, a little bit, with the environment where you have a number of projects going, as opposed to a single PhD project. That was in contrast to my own PhD experience. I have learned that, in terms of balancing and keeping your own spirits up, having a few projects is a really great thing. If one isn't going well, you pivot and work on the other for a little while. As you're pushing multiple things forward, when something starts to work, you just concentrate on that. So, it means your entire mood doesn't rise and fall based on a single research project. It's hard to predict the path of a research project.
So, the student that had a little bit of real-life experience was a particularly good match to my group, and the other student that I have started out working for a biologist and got very interested in the 3-D printing aspect. He was working on the neural clips, and he just had a real talent for the printing and mechanical design and thinking about the structures. So, he was a great match to my group, and he then made sure that he was educated in the tissue engineering part so that he could do the entire project. He's been very inventive, and as he's finishing up, he doesn't really know what he wants to do next. So, it's a good challenge for me to try and help him think about what different career trajectories would look like, but it's been particularly hard with the pandemic. I would have, of course, encouraged him to do internships as the best way to find out what it's like to work in a particular corporate environment, but those weren't possible. So, I'm trying to use my network, and hook him up with people that can talk to him about experiences at their company, my Bell Labs network.
What have been some takeaways in dealing with NSF as a funding agency?
I feel NSF is a little bit, as an organization, overwhelmed, because grant funding is the metric for tenure advancement in academia. So, the number of grant proposals that are submitted is huge, and the requirements -- NSF does a very good job of trying to make sure that there's a diverse set of reviewers, but it's just challenging to deal with the large numbers. So, I do think there's a little bit of -- I hesitate to call it randomness, but it almost is randomness in the sense that if you go with a particular panel, they don't like your grant, and they have some comments, if you fix those things and send it back, you can get a completely different review from a different panel that doesn't like different things. So, you don't feel like, if you change it according to a review, then you work your way up a line. I think NIH does a much better job of that, as I see that there's steady improvement and they let you know where you stand. They give you a percentage, and they tell you what the funding line is, and they tell you what you need to do to improve your proposal. NSF hasn't been doing that. That being said, the Engineering Research Center that we have is funded by NSF. It's interesting to see this organization which funds very basic research also trying to fund an Engineering Research Center. I feel like it's a two way street in terms of educating them about how this is done.
Another question about intellectual satisfaction. I wonder to what degree that takes on an additional meaning if you are working on research that contributes to advancing human health, which is about as important and fundamental as it gets.
Yes. Again, it just feels like a gift to be able to do this! If we solve this problem, or at least, if we make progress, heart disease is the number one killer, and heart tissue doesn't regenerate. So, it's a big problem, and it's one that a lot of people are interested in working on. But I think we have a different approach, and we have a chance. It's terribly exciting.
You're uniquely well-positioned. Of course, you cut your teeth at Harvard and MIT, and in many ways, for better or worse, BU lives in the shadow of those two organizations. So, I wonder, to the extent that we have a wide readership out there, what would you like to tell them about what they may or may not know about BU?
So, that's very interesting. I do think that Harvard and MIT and BU have a relatively good working arrangement, say, that complementarity is very good. I actually chose BU, and I would still choose BU. I had looked at some professor of the practice options at MIT but I chose BU because BU is aspiring to be better, and that is an opportunity to make change. So, they're not always saying no, and I feel that when you're at the top of the heap, it's easy to say no. "No, actually, we're already the best." So, it occurred to me that BU was a better environment for someone who wanted to have some autonomy, and wanted to have an impact, and wanted to be able to change things.
I wonder how well that fits in with the fact that Boston is a hotbed of biotech and venture capital and all kinds of things that are happening in the private sphere. To what extent have you been able to operationalize some of those local connections?
Right. Well, I do say that BU is closer to Harvard Medical School than Harvard is. We're actually right within walking distance of the Longwood Medical Area, and the ability to collaborate -- our ERC actually has professors at Columbia Medical School and Harvard Medical School. So, there just aren't big barriers. BU's not saying you only have to work with people at BU, and similarly with Harvard and MIT. So, the actual environment with the students living here, and all the talks, it's overwhelming how you could do continual education if you wanted to. Harvard and MIT are always competing, but I think BU tries to not get caught in the crossfire there.
I guess, in terms of working with the biotech community, there's just more than enough to go around here. It's such a vibrant environment right now. At the beginning of the pandemic, BU decided to set up its own testing capability. That was a great experience for the people that were involved. They stood up the lab, everything. Bought the robots and the automated testing. And this is a big university, 32,000 students. It's enabled us to stay open through the pandemic. So, I think that's set a great example of what could be done.
Alice, as you well know, when a professor gets tapped to become chair, there are two approaches to that. One is, oh, it's my turn. It's service to the department. Okay, I'll do it. And the other is to really grab on with both hands and see it as an opportunity to change the culture, to do new initiatives. Where did you fall on that spectrum?
Well, I really came in with a mandate for change. That was part of the idea to hire someone from the outside. And that was appealing to me. A lot of what I had learned in my experience at Bell Labs translated very well to academia, in the sense that as a manager at Bell, I was never telling people what to do. I was trying to provide the context to encourage them to do what I wanted them to do. But certainly, in the research area, we understood very well that self-motivation was the most important thing. And it's very much the same with academia. So, helping them to understand where the opportunities were, and what was in it for them is all part of what I do as a chair. I think my biggest legacy here will be the diversity of the junior faculty that I've been able to recruit and hire, because I really want to make a difference in that regard. Also, we don't control our undergraduate admissions, but we do control our PhD admissions. So, I'm also working hard in that regime to increase the diversity of that population as well.
Alice, one of the most important themes over the past year as STEM has become, obviously for the better, much more aware of the need for diversification, for celebrating underrepresented voices, to being all around a more inclusive place. That is, as a scientific proposition, it's not just that science should be good for diversity, but that diversity should be good for science. In other words, science benefits from a range of perspectives and backgrounds. I wonder what might jump out at you as something where you've been involved in these initiatives, where you can really demonstrate that's the truth. That's really how it should be. It's really how it works.
Yes, yes. So, I certainly, from my own experience, I share with them that all of the work that went into increasing the diversity of the staff at Bell Labs was a business imperative. I can talk to particular teams that I was on, for instance, and I think that maybe the main thing that I have brought to academia is the understanding that the numbers alone are not enough, that you have to create this inclusive environment. That language permeates now, but when I got here seven years ago, we didn't talk about inclusion at the university, but I talked about the environment. These are the words that I used. The behavior.
So, at a certain point at Bell Labs, the upper management decided we're going to make this a place where women and underrepresented minorities feel welcome. They just mandated we're not telling jokes anymore. There are a number of things. And there were some training sessions that we went to. But the idea was it wasn't enough just to get the numbers, but you also had to make it an environment which was nurturing, to make sure they were successful. So that’s what I've been doing, and now, we hear a lot of dialogue about inclusion, but those things are extremely important as well.
In particular, in academia, when students are coming in without the benefit of R1 university training. I think the hardest thing that I had to deal with was some of the metrics that people were using for either hiring faculty, or in particular, admitting PhD students. Those metrics for PhD students were GRE scores and GPAs. And there were cutoffs. We're not going to look at someone below a 3.5 GPA. In the meantime, we're looking at a lot of international students. Their GREs were whatever, not necessarily good. So, I instituted a criteria of how far they've come from where they started, and that requires you to read, in detail, the application. But if you understand that someone is the first one in their family to go to college, or they had to work a full-time job while they were in college, then their 3.0 GPA starts to look a lot more impressive than a 4.0 GPA from a student whose family could afford to pay to send them to a great school. That’s been successful and then, when students get here with that kind of background, we also have to make sure they're getting the support and the extra training that they need. So, I guess, that's what I would call the inclusion piece.
Alice, just to bring our conversation up to the present, what have you been working on these past few years? In the pandemic, before the pandemic, what you hope to accomplish when we get out of the pandemic.
Well, definitely, in terms -- I wear so many hats, but the most fun thing that I do is working with my graduate students, and just creating a situation where they can make progress. One of the neatest things that has been realized in the group is a -- I'll call it a miniature model of the ventricle in a human heart. It's a very, very tiny scaffold built with a 3-D printer, and it's seeded with cardiac cells. And those cells spontaneously beat. So, it actually has -- I'm starting to use my tissue engineering vocabulary here. It has a measurable ejection fraction from the cardiac construct. It's like a ventricle, so the tissue squeezes the scaffold that allows it to contract, and fluid comes out. This student was able to 3-D print a tiny valve that acts like the aortic valve. So, he can look at the flow in and out of the ventricle, and he can adjust the pre-load and afterload, which is a little bit like, in your heart, having some sort of stenosis, or maybe having some buildup in an artery. So, if the heart is trying to push into an artery which is blocked, it has some detrimental effect on the heart muscle. We're studying the effect of all those things on the heart muscle by making this tiny model, which is -- I can't tell you how exciting it is to see videos of this thing. And I'm running two searches, getting to the end of the semester, and many other things. I have a visiting committee that is half academic and half industrial. So, I try also to invite people in and expose the faculty to people from the outside with different points of view.
Alice, as you well know, there is a rich history of physicists contributing in fundamental ways to advancing human health. From, I mean, how far back should we go, the discovery of NMR, right to the fact that fluid dynamicists were the ones that started telling us we need to wear masks, because COVID is airborne. From your perspective, going all the way back to when you started in physics at Middlebury, through Harvard and MIT, and through all of your accomplishments at Bell Labs, what are some of the core concepts in physics that you rely on even today as you're operating more and more in the biological or the biological and mechanical engineering realm?
That's a good question. I would say that more than core concepts, it's sort of more an approach to trying to understand things at a slightly deeper level. So, not being satisfied with that this works, or this doesn't work, but trying to understand what's going on. That's much more a physicist's approach to something than an engineer’s approach to something. An engineer would just keep tweaking it until it works. So, that's probably the most useful thing I can say about that because there have been so many different concepts that come into play at different times, mechanical and electrical. Energy is something that we talk all the time, about the energy of the tissue. We look at calcium imaging, so understanding optics and imaging has been something that's been important through my entire career as well.
Alice, for the last part of our talk, I'd like to ask one question that's going to bridge the retrospective and the future. I want to ask a retrospective, and then we'll end with a future-looking question. So, the first one that sort of bridges past, present, and future, I know this is going to be, to some degree, outside of your area of expertise, but I think it's important to ask because of your generation at Bell Labs. In other words, when I've talked to people like Bert Halperin, or Lou Lanzerotti, I get an image of an earlier Bell Labs. One that was even more in the heyday, really the height of American power in mid 20th century America. For you, you're really that bridge generation, where even from your father, you got that front row seat, you experienced it for yourself, and you were there really right to the very bitter end.
So, the question broadens out your perspective from Bell Labs, and it gets to deeper questions about the prospects of American support for basic science. There's so much concern right now that where the United States was 50 years ago is where China is going to be 50 years from now. Right?
So, I'd like to ask, how do you view these things both in national terms, in the either/or sense, in the sense that what China is doing, we're falling behind, and it's our loss? And to what extent is science international, and it traverses boundaries, and discoveries that are made on the other side of the planet are good for what happens here? As you look to the next stage of your career, where you're going to continue to be witnessing these geo-strategic shifts, how can you reflect on your experiences? What do you see in the historical present, and what might this tell us about what's coming in the future?
I think that any trend to somehow becoming more isolationist in the U.S. and shutting out other countries is a very bad thing, and that we have benefited tremendously from existing in the greater international scientific community. I would say, right now, we haven't been as successful as we could have been in educating our American students to embrace and love STEM fields. So, the majority of grad students that, certainly, in my PhD program -- let's say half, not the majority -- are international. We benefit if they decide to stay, and we benefit if they experience our country and have had a good experience and go home.
But right now, they're essential to moving things forward. I think that we benefit from open sharing, and open exchange, and the broadest possible exchange. That's separate from what I would call industrial espionage, which is a different story and something that you have to be very careful about. But I think in the pre-commercial, where academia exists, I think it's really important to be open. I worry about the United States slipping in stature in this regard. My students are -- right now I have a mix of students from Turkey, Iran, Greece, and the US. We benefit tremendously from interacting. One from China just graduated. The Chinese student, sadly, left the US, and I think that is just a tragedy, that she didn't feel welcome to stay. She graduated in December and didn't feel welcome. So, I think a huge investment that we're making in educating these students is wasted if they don't continue to participate.
Alice, as you indicate, going all the way back to when so often, too often, at Harvard and before, you were the only woman in the room. As you tell it now, tremendous strides have been made, but that shouldn't paper over the fact that tremendous strides need to be made. I'd like to ask about your remarkable contribution in the book Blazing the Trail: Essays by Leading Women in Science. What were your motivations in contributing to this project, and in what ways was the essay retrospective about all of the progress that's been made, and to what extent was it aspirational, about the importance of continuing to improve these diversity initiatives?
Well, certainly, they got me to participate by listing a bunch of names of people I either knew or respected. So, I definitely put my hand up to be included in that group. It's a small and close community of women in physics. So, that was important. I wasn't sure who was ever going to read that book, but it was good for me to put those experiences down just to remind myself of what had happened. I think, going from the 1 or 2% of women in physics, now to, in my department, 30% women and underrepresented groups on the faculty, and probably a similar number in the students, there has been tremendous progress. But I just think it's really important not to keep putting energy into it. It still takes energy, I guess, to -- especially in recruiting faculty. A lot of energy.
One of the hallmarks of your career has been risk taking. Being willing to jump into something where the outcome wasn't so assured, either scientifically, or from a career perspective. Do you feel comfortable mentoring and giving advice to students that that attitude remains viable today, or alternatively, do you recognize that you came of age at a time in American society where such things were not as risky as they might appear today?
Oh, I would encourage them to take risks. It's absolutely -- be courageous -- absolutely important. I encourage my faculty to take risks. In fact, I tell them I'm sharing the risk. So, hire that extra student even though you don't see five years of funding, and I will step in if you run out of money. Take that risk. Jump in. Start full steam ahead. Because, you know, in the end, you do that, and you see your path, but if you hang back, you're just going to be left with something that's ordinary, unexciting, incremental. So, the reward from taking the risk, even if 90% of the time it doesn't work out, is much greater than not doing it in the first place.
Have you kept tabs on all of the collaborations that you've been a part of over the course of your career? Say, something you were doing in 1990 that was really fundamental at the time, is it personally meaningful to you to see how your research has taken on a life of its own, and what it might be doing now, or is that not your intellectual style? You don't like to look in the rearview.
Well, sometimes I do, and that's a good example, because in around the early 2000s, we were working on silicon photonics. It was called silicon photonics. Could you make optical circuits in silicon? Not silica, but in silicon itself. My first external grant at Bell Labs was to integrate electronics and photonics in silicon. It was a project in which the optics people, the optical communications experts said, "Silicon is never going to be used for photonics." I do enjoy thinking back to those times, because, again, we kind of laid the groundwork for silicon photonics, and now, of course, there are companies built on it, and a lot of receivers are made of silicon photonics. So, twenty years later, it's completely accepted. Twenty years ago, they thought we were crazy. So, I do have a little fun looking back at some of the naysayers. But I don't spend a lot of time looking back. I'm just too busy.
Alice, last question, looking to the future. Obviously, it would be a fool's errand to try to predict what's next for you in your next chapter, because that wouldn't make sense in terms of your overall trajectory. But broadly conceived, what are your major goals? What do you want to accomplish, both in the scientific realm, the administrative realm, and in your role as an educator and as a mentor, because whatever you do next, you're going to remain committed to diversity in the field? What are those big items that are most compelling to you that will always be at the top of your agenda well into the future?
I think the next big thing for me will be climate change and the environment--trying to do something more as a volunteer, more as an organizer or coordinator rather than a researcher myself. But I would like to do something with that level of societal impact. It's something that my children, one of my children anyways, is passionate about, and I partly would take it up just as an example for her, I guess.
Alice, it has been a great pleasure spending all of this time with you. I'm so happy that we connected through our mutual friend, Julia Phillips. It's been just so fun hearing your remarkable career trajectory and all of your insights over the decades. So, thank you so much for doing this, and we'll be so excited to include this in our collection. So, thank you.
Okay, thanks a lot.