WOMEN IN CHEMISTRY
AT HOME IN THE LAB
Hard work, love for chemistry have yielded a successful career for IBM's Cherie Kagan
"I've always been one of those math and science kids from elementary school on up," Kagan recalls of her days growing up on Long Island in New York. It wasn't until high school that her interest in chemistry came to the forefront.
"I was very fortunate to have good teachers through high school and college to inspire and influence my scientific pursuits," Kagan says.
Kagan, 33, received a B.A. in mathematics and a B.S.E. in materials science and engineering from the University of Pennsylvania in 1991. As an undergraduate student, she did research under Peter K. Davies using potassium brannerite to synthesize metastable vanadium molybdenum oxides. She then went on to earn a Ph.D. in electronic materials with Moungi G. Bawendi at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1996.
Of particular pride to Kagan is her Ph.D. thesis work. She investigated the electrical and optical properties of close-packed cadmium selenide quantum-dot solids.
"Maybe because you're young and everything seems harder then, but the work I did at MIT was really satisfying," Kagan recalls. "We put out some work that people are building on."
Following graduation, Kagan went to work at Lucent Technologies' Bell Labs as a postdoctoral member of the technical staff. In 1998, she joined IBM's physical sciences department.
At IBM, Kagan designs systems that are useful in electronic devices. Kagan uses her expertise to fabricate materials and molecular assemblies. She then characterizes the materials using an array of optical and electrical techniques. Once she and her coworkers know the properties of what they have, they then try to exploit the materials to make new devices.
Kagan is most proud when she and her coworkers are able to "put out a piece of work that's of a good quality and contributes to the scientific community." This means doing the right experiments carefully.
When she first joined IBM, she was involved with a project to investigate organic-inorganic hybrid materials for use in electronic devices. Through her research, she demonstrated the fabrication of thin-film transistors by self-assembling thin films of the hybrid semiconductors from solution. The new materials had performance marks comparable to those for thin-film transistors used in displays.
Continuing her research on semiconducting materials, Kagan is now investigating the use of various molecules in the fabrication of novel devices and materials.
Of her responsibilities at IBM, she finds working in the lab the most enjoyable. "The best part of my job is when I get to spend time in my lab," Kagan says eagerly.
Kagan is also active outside of her job. A sports enthusiast, she enjoys running and exploring the outdoors with her husband. Since becoming a home owner, she finds herself spending a lot of her free time doing house-related chores and projects. "My newest hobbies are trying to get paint on most of the walls and getting grass to grow," she says.
Throughout her career, Kagan says she has never felt like she has been treated any differently than her male counterparts. However, she doesn't believe that the playing field for women is exactly level. "It's important for women to be taken seriously," she says.
Kagan points out that, to level the playing field, giving qualified women the opportunities to fill open positions is more important than filling quotas. "It is not helpful for the individual or the chemical field to put researchers in positions that they are not ready for," she says, "but there are women who are up to the challenge."
For those interested in working in industry, Kagan advises that they take advantage of the opportunities to network at scientific meetings. Additionally, she suggests that interested students be sure to understand the long-term impact of their research.
"If you're doing research in a field applicable to industry, there's a natural opportunity to meet and introduce yourself to industrial researchers," she explains. These interactions can be very helpful when a student or postdoc begins to actively look for a job.
Kagan also advises students to pursue a career path in an area that they love. She notes that if people do what they like, they'll work hard at it and opportunities will come their way. "The most important thing is to do what you like," she stresses.
"You never really know how things will turn out," Kagan adds. For example, she notes that "there were unexpected forces such as having the opportunity to do undergraduate research that have landed me where I am today.
"I'm fortunate because I get to spend my day, no matter how frazzled it may be, doing challenging things I enjoy," she says.