|Basic and Beautiful: An Interview with ECE’s Prof. Azadeh Ansari
Dr. Azadeh Ansari recently joined Georgia Tech in School of Electrical and Computer Engineering working in the field of MEMS and microsystems engineering. I sat down with her at her Tech Square office for a conversation on her career trajectory from basic physics to electrical engineering, the growth of interdisciplinary research, its necessity in today’s complicated research space, and some tips for girls interested in STEM fields.
When did you know you wanted to study engineering? Was there a specific moment or realization?
I knew that I loved physics and math from early on, but wasn't quite sure about the exact engineering field. My first passion was basic science, but I also knew I wanted more than pure science; in engineering, the cool thing is that you can put your ideas into practice and actually build things and see the product. The ability to make something practical and physical using fundamental and theoretical approaches was the defining moment for me.
Additionally, I am an outgoing person and enjoy interacting with people. This pushed me to choose a field in which you are always talking and interacting with people, giving and taking input and having human interactions.
What drew you to semiconductors, MEMS, and wireless/RF design? Was there a specific problem that you thought you wanted to solve or it was just you worked in that field with some of the researchers and had a talent for it?
Well I think the idea of miniaturizing and shrinking the size of functional devices to the nano-scale really fascinated me; there is a touch of arts and intricate design added to the basic science and engineering, and is truly a technology enabler. Once you scale devices and materials down, the governing laws of physics change depending on their scale. With nano-scale research, it isn't just engineering, but you have to know the fundamental physics and there are always new realms to explore. On the application side, a new horizon of added functionalities opens up and many many applications appear with miniaturization and packing more and more devices on the same chip.
Think of a simple guitar string, once you ping it, it produces a nice tone. Now imagine scaling the string down to nanometer or micron scale- roughly one billionth of your hair diameter. You can think of densely packing million guitar strings together. Very generally speaking, my research boils down to working with the scaled-down guitar strings; and it turns out that you have to be smart on how to “ping” or actuate such “nano-strings” to “resonate.” The tone they produce depends not only on their dimension but also on the material and resonance mode. And such resonators can have many applications ranging from sensing small masses (e.g. single molecules) to providing the ultra-stable clocks using for wireless communication.
I happen to be working on just one small portion of the broad NEMS/MEMS area, but you could easily think of millions of applications that can come out of these miniaturized MEMS devices that are integrated with the rest of the semiconductor. The MEMS help achieve higher performance chips, that cannot be realized by electrical circuits and classic semiconductor devices. Additionally, you can envision multi-functional MEMS platforms, wherein mechanics, optics, and semiconductor technology meet. This has really intrigued me.
You did your post-doctoral work at the Physics Department at Caltech. Was the research pure mathematical and theory?
The research was applied physics and experimental work. That was one thing that I really enjoyed because I got to see things from physicists’ perspective. I, as an engineer, can see the gap between the theoretical and practical research communities and I think it's really important that this is bridged and that the two communities talk more to each other. Engineers, I feel, often do know about practical applications and are more tied with industry and know the real-world problems, but sometimes we tend to forget to to look deeper as why things are happening the way they are. It may happen that as log as things work, we are happy with it. Conversely, the physicists sometimes focus too much on the theory and fundamentals and they don't have good tools or good connections with industry to stay up to date on the technology advancements and current needs. So, I believe both communities would greatly benefit from more collaborative work and it was certainly an advantage for me to see both worlds.
What drew you to accepting a faculty position at Georgia Tech?
My field (MEMS) gives me a lot of opportunity to collaborate because of its multi-disciplinary nature. There are many great research groups here working in the related fields, and that is a research gift. Facilities that are capable of the kinds of micro and nanofabrication and characterization and test requirements for this work are also really necessary, and Georgia Tech has one of the best nanofabrication facilities located at Marcus Nanotechnology Building.
My research is interdisciplinary in nature and greatly benefits from across-school collaborations, GT is very unique as there are very strong programs in other departments such as mechanical engineering, biomedical engineering, material science and school of Physics.
Do you have any thoughts on, or tips for, women in engineering?
It's really sad that we see such a gender ratio imbalance in STEM fields. In my opinion, this is more cultural than anything else, and the problem arises way earlier, perhaps when girls are 7th or 8th grade. Girls seem to lose their interest in math and physics, mostly because of what they hear -implicitly or explicitly-, that science/engineering is 'uncool’ or not ‘feminine’. Lack of a role model, is another big factor; not having anyone to look up to and say, ‘I am going to college to be just like her,’ can affect the drive for women in engineering to pursue their education. I think it's very important for girls, especially in high school or even in undergrad to pursue their passion and not give up on their love for science/engineering. I do not deny that being out-numbered by male students or working in a male-dominated field is challenging, but I do believe that once you overcome the initial barrier, and if the passion/drive is high enough, girls can do just as well, if not better and feel welcome and comfortable eventually. Also, my advice for women in engineering is to pursue graduate work, as the research becomes more specified, it would be easier to align your passion with your research and enjoy becoming deep in any specific area.
I am asked quite frequently why so many women graduate students or faculty members in electrical engineering are from Iran, where I am originally from. Having thought about this to myself, one thing that I realized is that I went to an all girls high school and nobody told us that young girls ‘can't do math’ or ‘it's not cool for a girl to be great at physics.’ In fact, not being told that STEM is not for girls and other negative comments, went a long way and made us girls believe that there is nothing to stop us from pushing our limits to do engineering. Basically, if you are not told that you cannot do it, you definitely can.
Paradigms have to change that make girls not give up on science/engineering. This definitely requires unified effort amongst schools, colleges, universities and even media. I am not saying we have to push all girls to pursue science/engineering, but if somebody has the passion from childhood, it is very sad to kill the flame because of biases and stereotypes. The attitude is what needs to be changed. I recommend reading the book called “Lean-in” by Sheryl Sandberg; I am hopeful about the future and can see some ‘baby-step’ improvements in involvement of women in Tech.
If you were not an electrical engineer, what do you think you would have perused instead?
I could equally have done applied physics and be happy. I love the basic science behind it, basic, fundamental and beautiful.
Azadeh Ansari received the B.S. degree in Electrical Engineering from Sharif University of Technology, Iran in 2010. She earned the M.S and Ph.D. degrees in Electrical Engineering from University of Michigan, Ann Arbor in 2013 and 2016 respectively, focusing upon III-V semiconductor and MEMS devices and microsystems for RF applications. Prior to joining the ECE faculty at Georgia Tech, she was a postdoctoral scholar in the Physics Department at Caltech from 2016 to 2017.
Dr. Ansari is the recipient of a 2017 ProQuest Distinguished Dissertation Award from the University of Michigan for her research on “Gallium Nitride integrated microsystems for RF applications.” She received the University of Michigan Richard and Eleanor Towner Prize for outstanding Ph.D. research in 2016. She is a three-time winner of the best poster award at Engineering Graduate Symposium at University of Michigan in MEMS track.