Photo of Melanie Jenkins and John Conley.

Melanie Jenkins and John Conley in Conley's lab at Oregon State University.

With a degree in chemical engineering from Oregon State University, Melanie Jenkins took a job as a process engineer at Micron Technology in Boise, Idaho where she spent 12-hour shifts in the cleanroom.

“It was really fun!” she said.

Although 12-hours shifts in a cleanroom might not sound fun to everyone, it was a job that gave her tons of experience working on the cutting-edge of materials science. In the research and development department, she was part of inventing new devices for memory storage.

“It was exciting because I got to learn about all of the new tools that were built specifically for new processes,” Jenkins said. “I also worked on fault detection for all the tools. So, my job was to react to things that had gone wrong and solve mysteries.”

Even though she was learning a lot at Micron, her ultimate goal was to have a career in research.

“I wanted to work in research, because I want to learn about things that haven’t been discovered or known before. The thought of always learning is really appealing to me,” Jenkins said.

But, she would need more than a bachelor’s degree for a career in research. When she realized it would not be possible to continue her job at Micron and pursue a Ph.D. at Boise State University simultaneously, she knew she wanted to return to Oregon State.

Specifically, she wanted work in the lab of John Conley, professor of electrical and computer engineering in the College of Engineering, where she had worked as an undergraduate. As a junior, she worked on a project to test the scratch resistance and other mechanical properties of atomic-layer-deposited thin films for dental applications. And for her senior design project, she worked with ON Semiconductor on a project to develop a sputtering process (another way to deposit thin films) for titanium nitride.

“I like this area of research because it’s almost nonphysical — you can’t see it; you can only detect it through the measurements you take,” Jenkins said.

She is currently working on two projects that will eventually combine to become her thesis. For one project, she is working with a group of collaborators in the Center for Sustainable Materials Chemistry to perfect a process of spin coating (yet another way of depositing thin films) which has advantages over atomic layer deposition because it’s cheaper, the materials are less hazardous, it can be used for large surfaces, and it does not need to be performed in a vacuum chamber. She is primarily working with aluminum oxide, which is used as an insulating material by the semiconductor industry and for solar panels.

The second project will help to characterize the thin films the group is developing in the first project. She will be using an energy measurement technique pioneered in the 1960s, called internal photoemission spectroscopy. It has recently become more popular as the best way to directly measure energy barrier heights in buried interfaces. She will be working on applying this technique to new devices.

Jenkins can see that her experience at Micron has helped her to be successful in graduate school.

“It was really useful for me to know what is going on in industry,” she said. “I was also able to mature before coming back to grad school and have a clear goal, which is helpful in maintaining motivation.”

As a graduate student, she has been co-author on three published papers, given two talks, and recently submitted a first-authored paper.

“I am fortunate to have such a great research group with students like Melanie,” Conley said. “She is intelligent, curious, hardworking, enthusiastic, and has great ideas. On top of all that, she has a good sense of humor and is fun to work with. She is going to go far.”