Undergrad: Western Washington University, Bellingham, WA - Physics
Current Job Title: Materials Engineer Intern
I remember when the big “oh-no” moment came mid-way through my third year at Western Washington University. I had been feeling satisfied at the start of the year having accomplished several college challenges: formally declaring a major, joining a research group, starting a part-time job, and finally moving off campus to live like an actual adult. But then I realized an even scarier choice awaited me: assuming I graduated, which some days seemed difficult, what would I do after undergrad?
My mentors advised me to go to as many conferences that year as I possibly could in order to gain perspective and resources. In January, I attended the Conference for Undergraduate Women In Physics (CUWIP). Many events focused on graduate school, but at that point I was leaning away from a doctorate. I was unsure which facet of physics I would be willing to devote the next 5-7 years of my life to studying, and I was starting to experience burnout in some of my academic focused classes. Fortunately, I met Stacey York, who told me about the UO Masters Program. It provided a graduate level degree in a short time scale and focused on both the technical and professional knowledge of how to get a job. By my final year of undergrad, this sounded more and more appealing. So I applied, interviewed, and joined the Semiconductor Track.
I will not lie: the initial summer was intense. The lack of break after my graduation, and the fast pace of the three to four week courses was very challenging. However, everyone in the program acknowledged the difficulties and went above and beyond to help us not only survive, but succeed. The cohort of students in my track became a lifeline. The Semi Track is very interdisciplinary, so we helped tutor each other though the academic challenges. In the process we all became really close friends, where after working for a few hours on homework, or finishing a lab session, we would all go out for sushi, have movie parties, or explore Eugene together. The program staff were also an amazing resource - more than once I had an office session with Lynde or Stacey to get a mental health boost or with professors to get extra help on assignments.
One of the most valuable, unique aspects of this Master Program is the professional development workshops. The personal feedback on resume reviews were more helpful than consulting with primarily online resources. However, my favorite exercise was the practice interviews, where we would form groups and take turns being the interviewee and interviewer. Not only did this practice make the internship interviews less terrifying, I’ve also continued to use those skills to help hire new employees for my current workplace.
My internship was with Nanohmics, Inc, a small R&D company in Austin, TX that focuses on early-stage technologies for larger companies (ThermoFisher, Raytheon) and government agencies (NASA, DOT). Being a small company that has more projects than people, it is common to be on anywhere from 2-5 projects and wear multiple hats. So while I started with an internship more focused on cleanroom fabrication and material analysis, as my interests changed and stayed on as a full-time employee, I also began assisting with computer modeling, data software scripting, electrical readout, and experimental design of our biosensor (a semiconducting nanoparticle film tailored to detect gas concentrations, pH, and other diagnostic biomarkers). I will say, as frustrating as it was having minimal guidance on the UO lab assignments, it was a perfect preparation for my industry job. One of my first tasks in my internship was to design a way to characterize the magnetostriction of a cantilever using any method I could devise.
Technical aspects aside, during the interview I had asked the President of Nanohmics what he enjoyed most about his job. His response was working with amazing people, many of whom have more expertise than he does. It was a good indicator that the company culture really values its employees, and I have found that to be true. Similar to my experience in the UO Track, every group has a good mix of scientific diversity and collaboration is always encouraged. As a small company, we are all so close knit that it feels more like a large family.
Though college was terrifying because there were so many unknowns, I have ultimately found that it will always turn out okay. Knowing your own personal preferences help; for example I still don’t think I could have focused on one topic in grad school and prefer a flexible company where I can shift between computer and lab work. But if you are overwhelmed or unsure, reach out to get as many perspectives as you can. You don’t have to face these challenges alone and a good support network will help you get through the most difficult times.