March / April 2007
Ainissa G. Ramirez is an Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Yale University. Her work focuses on the development of thin film NiTi shape memory alloys for microelectro-mechanical systems (MEMS). Dr. Ramirez received her training in materials science and engineering at Brown University (Sc.B.) and Stanford University (Ph.D.). She worked as a member of technical staff at Bell Laboratories, Lucent Technologies in Murray Hill, NJ for four years before joining the faculty at Yale in 2003. She has been awarded the Sloan Research Fellowship, the NSF CAREER award, and MIT’s TR100 Young Innovators Award (2003). She has written over 25 technical articles and holds six patents. Dr. Ramirez is also a leader in science education and serves as an advisor to the Liberty Science Center (Jersey City, NJ) and the Exploratorium (San Francisco, CA). At Yale, she is the director of the award-winning science lecture series for children, Science Saturdays. She sits on the Board of Directors for the Connecticut Academy for Education.
My visit to MIT as a Martin Luther King Visiting Professor was brief but rewarding. This visiting position afforded me new collaborations in thin film shape memory research and the space to think about new directions. I expanded my research efforts by using equipment not available at my home institution; and, I expanded my pedagogy by witnessing exciting new courses in action. The electric environment and the magnitude of efforts I found at MIT encouraged me (or dare I say compelled me) to be more creative in my own research and educational pursuits. It was my awakening.
Before I get ahead of myself, let me provide a bit of background about how I got here. I am a materials scientist trained at Brown (ScB) and Stanford (PhD), which I know is a dirty word in these parts. Nevertheless, I’ll admit that I have always admired MIT scientists when I worked with them as a member of the technical staff at Bell Labs, in Murray Hill, NJ. I always appreciated their thorough understanding of the fundamentals and the scientific creativity this understanding enabled. In many ways, my time at Bell Labs prepared me for my visiting professorship.
Before I arrived at the Institute, I had several plans of what I wanted to accomplish. Admittedly, the list was too long, so I reduced it to three basic themes: advancing my shape memory alloy research, my solder research, and my science education efforts. And my underlying goal was to meet as many people as possible.
Currently, my research falls into two thrusts: the development of thin film shape memory alloys, and the development of reactive solders. Shape memory alloys (like NiTi) exhibit the unique property of “remembering” their original shape by undergoing a reversible martensitic phase transformation when heated. My work is in understanding their thin film behavior and in integrating them into microelectromechanical systems (or MEMS) as actuation materials. As such, I am interested in exploring the factors that impact their phase transformation behavior, like composition and microstructure. At Yale, we developed schemes to control and predict the resulting grain size after annealing using nucleation theory. These results have helped us generate a map that correlates structure and processing. At MIT, I explored the link between structure and the mechanical properties using nano-indentation.
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I also spent time as an MLK Visiting Professor thinking about solders. Solders? Yes, solders. I know that solders do not seem that intellectually intriguing in this age of nanotechnology, but I have found they are avenues for innovation. I learned this lesson at Bell Labs when we needed and developed solders that could bond directly to glass (optical fibers) and ceramics. These rare-earth doped formulations are now commercialized by Adhera Technologies (adheratech.com) and are an enabling technology for the packaging of MEMS, microelectronics, and optoelectronics. I learned then that I was wrong in thinking that all things were done with solder. With this vantage, I re-examined solder again as a means to create micron-scaled 3D metallic structures (or microsolidics). By molding solders into polymer channels one can create flexible yet conductive assemblies. If the polymer is removed, complicated stand-alone metal structures can be made rapidly and cheaply. I enjoyed thinking of clever ways to create with solder and found that metallurgy is alive and well in Cambridge.
In addition to my research, my passion also lies in science education, specifically K-12 efforts. I am committed to convincing all children that science is within their domain.
There are systemic factors that reduce our pipeline of talent. I am interested in creating modes to prevent students from being discouraged while within this pipeline. At Yale, I created a fun lecture series for kids, called Science Saturdays (sciencesaturdays.org), which attempts to show children (of all ages and hues) the enthusiasm one can have for science. Efforts such as these are still in their genesis at Yale. When I came to MIT, I was surprised to find the vast number of long-standing science educational programs that existed. This institutional commitment increased my zeal for this type of work.
Overall, MIT made me feel like a kid in a candy store with the tremendous amount of resources, expertise, and passion that everyone has for their work. It was reminiscent of my time at Bell Labs. I was impressed with the willingness of researchers to collaborate, to expand ideas, and to connect these ideas to other work. I also appreciated their willingness to meet with me despite their high rank or reputation. Most importantly, I found that the currency for connecting with other scientists was based on the quality of one’s ideas.
Thinking about exchanges based solely on “the quality of ideas” reminds me of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream for all of us to be judged solely by the “content of our character.” Strangely, unexpectedly, and for an ever-so-fleeting moment, I got a glimpse of that.
Now, I need to be careful because I know from experience that biases are very real, very present, and very deeply ingrained. So, I do not want my words to set back causes towards the equality of women and people of color in academia (of which I am a member of both camps). However, I would cautiously propose that there was something unique about being a visitor at MIT.
My temporary and unattached “just visiting” status allowed me to peel back these layers and experience a near-bias-free existence, where the basic question was “Is she good?” This was a paradigm shift for this metric has been ethereal for me. The opportunity to briefly taste this quixotic goal made the MLK program so rewarding.
If I had one piece of advice to any future MLK visitor, it is to find someone to guide you through this wonderfully peculiar terrain. I was extremely fortunate to have such a guide and I am indebted to my mentor, Prof. Samuel Allen. I would also say to future MLK visitors to get connected to other faculty of color. Getting connected was of great benefit to me because the number of black engineering faculty at Yale is one – yours truly. So, it was wonderful to be among colleagues with a common understanding.
Lastly, what did I leave with? In addition to great data, I left with a greater appreciation for the entrepreneurial spirit, which is palpable at MIT. I was particularly inspired by the notion of creating engineering applications for the developing world and have passed this on to my undergraduate advisees. Such projects really motivate students who want to make a difference. On a personal note, I returned to Yale with a (super) charged battery, a renewed sense of the best practices to do science, and a great appreciation of MIT for what it is today and what it has the potential to become. My time in Cambridge has made me a better professor and a better person. Thank you, MIT.
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