MSE Graduate Student Profile: Erin Robertson

"I have been able to take on tasks that I never thought I would do.  I've built reactors, made micro scale devices, given presentations at conferences, and rubbed elbows with Congress....You don't have to have a materials science background to become a materials scientist.  You just have to have the drive."

- Erin Robertson

erin robertson
  • Hometown: Raleigh, NC
  • B.S., Physics and B.A., Spanish, Appalachian State University
  • Advisor: Professor Gary Rubloff
  • Started Program: Spring 2004

We chatted with Erin to learn more about her experiences in the graduate program in materials science and engineering, and to find out why she chose the University of Maryland for her studies.

Who is your advisor, and in which lab do you work?

I work for Dr. Gary Rubloff in the Laboratory for Advanced Materials Processing, or LAMP for short.

Please tell us about your research.

I work on high-k dielectric thin film materials for electronic devices.  As electronic devices become smaller, the materials we currently use in them are not able to work in the same manner they do in larger ones. I'm working on finding materials that can have the same efficiency in small devices as the materials we use today in larger ones. I study these materials by using a gas phase deposition technique called Atomic Layer Deposition (ALD), a self-limiting process that deposits one atomic layer of a precursor gas at a time across a surface, coating and saturating it. This lets us precisely control the thickness of the film at an atomic level.

What is your highest hope for your research?  What would be the most rewarding outcome or result?

The highest hope I have for my research is that I can provide a better understanding of the governing mechanisms of ALD in 3D nanostructures. A rewarding outcome would be to take this information and make interesting and useful nanostructures using ALD. 

How did you become interested in materials science and engineering and/or the research you're doing now?

I received my B.S. in physics from Appalachian State University.  During my undergraduate years I took a summer internship in Gaithersburg, Md. (down the beltway from UMD) at NIST in their Materials Science Engineering Lab. I knew nothing about materials when I started, but it quickly became interesting to me. My physics degree was geared toward electronics, so I had an active interest in electronic materials. 

Why did you choose UMD? What appealed to you about the Clark School?

Appalachian State University is a small liberal arts school not really known for science, and is located in the small town of Boone, North Carolina. I personally am not a small town girl, so I never felt comfortable in Boone. I also knew that if I wanted my Ph.D., I needed to attend a science and engineering school. Maryland has one of the top engineering programs in the country, but the Department of Materials Science and Engineering is small enough that I don't feel like just another number. The faculty and staff make an effort to know your name. Because of this and my internship at NIST, the University of Maryland had always been my number one choice for grad school.

What is the best thing about your experience here so far?

I have grown and I would like to think I have helped the department grow as well. Coming from a liberal arts college, I felt I was lacking many fundamentals of science and engineering, especially in materials.  However, due to my work ethic and my motto, "Never give up," I have been able to take on tasks that I never thought I would do.  I've built reactors, made micro scale devices, given presentations at conferences, and rubbed elbows with Congress. I also started the Materials Science Graduate Society, reviving the MRS university student chapter.  My best experience thus far would have to be when I went with several other UMD students and Dr. Briber down to Capital Hill to encourage senators and congressmen to continue supporting science in the USA through the NSF, NIST, and NIH. 

What would you like to do after completing your studies here?

I'm more of a people person rather than one to work in a lab.  Following graduation I would like to pursue a career in science policy. After my visit to Capital Hill, I realized I had no reservations about talking to people on their level about highly technical information. My ultimate goal would be to be awarded a Congressional Science Fellowship and work hand in hand with senators and congressmen. 

Would you recommend the Clark School or the MSE graduate program to other students, and if so, why?

I would definitely recommend the MSE program at UMD to other students. We have great opportunities for research, especially with all of the centers and institutes on campus that encourage collaboration. There are also many opportunities to collaborate with not only other universities, but with all the government agencies and industries found in the Washington, D.C. area. 

What advice do you have for undergraduates considering graduate studies in MSE?

You don't have to have a materials science background to become a materials scientist. You just have to have the drive. Graduate school is not easy, but with the right attitude you can excel in anything. If possible try to find an internship at a university or a government lab [as an undergraduate]. This will not only give you hands-on experience, but it will also give you contacts and references when applying [to graduate school]. When you get into grad school, make every effort to meet your fellow students. Other new students will help you adjust to this new step in your life because they're going through the same thing. Older students can help you through your courses and lend a voice of experience and encouragement.

What do you like about living in the Washington, D.C. area?  What do you like to do when you're not in the lab? 

I used to live in this area when I was younger and had always wanted to come back. Washington, D.C. has a great historical and cultural aspect that isn't found anywhere else in the country. There are always activities offered at many of the Smithsonian museums, local parks to run, ride my bike, or play frisbee in, and a plethora of restaurants found all over town. At night I can always have fun by going out with a group of friends to a bar or nightclub in Adams Morgan or Georgetown. Locally, I like to visit downtown Silver Spring and Bethesda [Md.]. The Appalachian Mountains are only an hour away and I absolutely love historical Harper's Ferry in the Shenandoah Valley. However, most of the time I'm just hanging out with some of the most amazing people I could have ever met by coming to UMD.

Erin recieved her Ph.D. in 2010.