asks When you realized that your work would find you in male dominated milieux, did that influence what you did or how you did it?
When I was little, I was absolutely fascinated by astronomy. Chemistry came into my life not much later when I was wondering what the stars were made out of. When I was in 9th grade, I was dabbling in theater arts and getting A’s in science. I kept getting cast as middle aged or elderly women at the age of 14, and I never could be the ingenue. Of course, I could raid my great-grandmother’s closet for my characters’ wardrobes, but I looked at my type casting and my grades in science, and then went, “Cindy, don’t quit your day job!” My high school was exceptionally good in science and math, and my physics teacher was very keen on getting the girls in her classes to focus on STEM careers. I was able to work at NASA Ames in Mountain View as both a senior in high school and a senior in college.
The gender imbalance wasn’t so acute in high school because my closest girlfriends and I were pretty much science geeks together. By the time I got to Santa Clara, I declared my chemistry major right away and just kept plugging along. I never got any flak from the chemistry faculty about how girls don’t major in chem, but one of my friends got a major sexist slap down from one of the physics professors about how girls don’t do physics (GRRRR, he was a grade A jerk).
There were four girls majoring in chem in my year, and three out of the four of us graduated cum laude (only one guy was with us, and the 4th girl wasn’t far behind us).
My only question was whether or not I was going to go to graduate school in chemistry, and by the time I finished my senior thesis with my second tour at Ames, I pretty much had gotten tired of academia and didn’t really have the necessary drive to do research. Soooo, that meant looking for a job, and I got a job in the semiconductor industry right out of school (which incidentally paid a lot better than pharmaceuticals if you had a BS degree thirty years ago). I started off doing benchtop quality control testing on the chemicals and plastics used in wafer fabs and chip assembly, and then switched into materials characterization and microscopy where I still am today. Some of the meetings I was in at my old company, I was at least 33% of the XX chromosome cohort. My current company is probably split 60/40 M/F, but that’s probably damn good for around here in Silicon Valley.
I’m pretty happy because my work focuses on doing good materials characterization to help others improve their products. My primary job is making samples for transmission electron microscopy and the quality of the pictures that my imaging co-workers take are only as good as the samples that those of us in the sample prep group make. If I do a really good job, we can see the atomic lattice at 400,000X, which rocks. And I still keep my hand in surface contamination analysis by bouncing X-rays off of shiny wafers part of the time.