AIM Photonics, the Department of Defense (DoD) sponsored Integrated Photonics Manufacturing Institute, heads into its fifth year, with a number of notable accomplishments and technological achievements. Some of these major milestones include Radio Frequency (RF) over fiber for warfighter improvements, high-speed optical communications advancements (>1Tbps), low cost sensors for military and commercial applications (real time COVID-19 testing), and the only open-access 300mm state-of-the-art Photonic/Microelectronic test, assembly, and packaging research facility in the world.
Often times the technological advancements developed in these great institutes can overshadow one of the most important aspects of these manufacturing organizations; training our next generation workforce of skilled technicians, engineers, scientists and leaders in these new technologies. A little over two years ago, a bright young Ph.D. candidate attending the University at Albany and SUNY Poly’s College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering decided to take a summer course recommended by her professor.
This was AIM Photonics Summer Academy 2019; a week long course covering a number of new technology aspects of integrated photonics including: design, simulation, device characterization, and process development. Going into this week-long training, she knew of the added educational benefits, but little did she realize how this would change her future trajectory. A graduate of Stony Brook University, with a bachelor’s and master’s in Mechanical Engineering in just 5 years, focusing on Energy Technology, Ms. Erica Graham knew she had opened a new world that would not only change her view of technology, but the future of the 21st century. It was this simple one week course at AIM Photonics Academy’s HQ in the MIT campus where this happened. This new world was one of nanometer sized light particles traveling through waveguides made of silicon and silicon nitride. These waveguides enable devices to be powered by photons, instead of the traditional electrons. This was a new world to not only her, but many at the Summer Academy, as well as so many in our advanced technological workforce today.
With a unique desire to understand science and mathematics, it was early on where it all began. “Looking back at my fifth grade year book, there was a section of it that asked what you want to be in the year 2020,” said Erica Graham. “I wrote I wanted to be a scientist, so I guess I made the conscious decision sometime before fifth grade, and I believe my father was a driving force for that.”
Growing up in a very small farming community, she recalls her father’s work as a cleanroom technician for Intel and then IBM. Not much can be recalled, as much of the technology was confidential, even with family members, but she remembers driving by the facility in East Fishkill.
“There was this massive network of buildings and smoke stacks, and as a child, I wanted to know what was in there,” said Erica. “My father always had us focus on math and science, and this is why out of my three sisters, two are now doctors, one is in dentistry, and the other is in nanoscience. My third sister holds a master’s degree in social work from Columbia University.”
Since math and science were the subjects she was most interested in, it helped guide her down the technology path. “These were topics I could talk to, solve problems, and engage teachers in hypothetical questions that weren’t necessarily on the curriculum, but drove my desire to understand and learn more,” said Erica.
Having lived in a family that strongly supported education as a tool for advancement, including her three sisters with advanced degrees, it was easy for Erica to decide her path at SUNY. “Financially, in-state schools are amazing especially for families of multiple college bound children, in addition to being close to home,” said Erica.
After completing her master’s, Erica decided to continue work towards a Ph.D. and ultimately chose SUNY Poly’s College of Nanoscale Science & Engineering while at UAlbany. “SUNY Poly made the decision easy because it offers students hands-on lab and cleanroom experiences,” said Erica. “These are experiences you typically only get in industry after you have graduated.”
She also took part in the unique Innovation Intensive program, a joint SUNY Poly/Albany Law School program supported by the SUNY Research Foundation. The Innovation Intensive Clinic affords students an immersive opportunity to partner with interdisciplinary teams to understand and work within the technology commercialization process in a university setting. With a heavy focus on intellectual property law and the regulation of new technologies, students are on the cutting edge of both the law and such rapidly evolving areas as nanotechnologies, quantum computing, and artificial intelligence. Erica shared her experience in this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rNzXoaHNdLk.
Returning from the 2019 Summer Academy course, Erica was now filled with the knowledge and understanding of the potential that integrated photonics has for our future. She continued her device modeling work to include those particles of light. Nate Cady, Erica’s Ph.D. advisor and Professor at SUNY Poly, welcomed the opportunity for her to promote this in her thesis. Coupled with her keen curiosity for new scientific advancements, she began using the knowledge gained from the week-long summer course.
The summer Academy was not the first step in Erica’s photonics journey. Her AIM-funded Ph.D. research is being conducted in the same location as the AIM headquarters. She was also awarded a co-op with the engineering team, and was given an opportunity that many would only dream of. She was now working in one of the most advanced nanotechnology research organizations in the world, NY CREATES in Albany, NY. This organization supports research from industry leaders such as: IBM, Applied Materials, Tokyo Electron, CREE | Wolfspeed, Lam Research, and of course, AIM Photonics, as well as many other organizations.
Here the AIM Photonics team builds the most advanced Photonic Integrated Chips (PIC) supporting multiple programs. As a co-op student, Erica experiences first-hand how AIM Photonics delivers an industry-leading Multi Project Wafer (MPW) program. Now involved in AIM’s entire ecosystem, and working with engineers, program managers, customer engagement, and business teams, she gains an entirely new understanding of how customers’ initial designs are developed into the final PICs. The most exciting part was using her SUNY B.S. and M.S. education and current Ph.D. studies to help perform simulations for current and future PIC device improvements.
“Working with the AIM Photonics team was very special. I didn’t expect to learn so much, and have so much fun interacting with my colleagues,” said Erica. “One special aspect of AIM Photonics is that they focus on learning. They enroll you in design courses to increase your knowledge. They are focused on the individual worker, which I genuinely appreciate in a company.”
Unfortunately, not every young mind has the same opportunities or strong family network. Knowing this drove Erica to reopen and serve as the chapter President of the National Society of Black Engineers on the SUNY Stony Brook campus during her undergraduate years. Erica realized that the gifts she received were not simply endowed, and the challenges others might have in taking a similar path was something she was dedicated to helping those overcome. She is the founding president of the Graduate Students of Color Organization at UAlbany, the first graduate level organization devoted to addressing the needs of underrepresented students on campus. Her work in the organization has been devoted to increasing academic excellence as well as fighting against injustice and inequality for members. She served as a mentor and coach for the Dr. Betty Shabazz Delta Academy where she assisted in facilitating science programs and mentoring middle school age girls of color.
“I will always be a mentor, I will always be a leader, and I will always try to lift as I climb, and sharing that same passion with a curious young mind will, I hope, ultimately enable them to do the same,” said Erica.
Many individuals ask what AIM Photonics has accomplished, and as mentioned previously, the technology advancements in just five years are amazing. But, stories like Erica Graham’s are even more amazing, because without the Ericas of today, there might be no future AIM or integrated photonics. Erica’s story shows why these workforce programs and institutions are so important.