Applications of micro-fabrication technologies in the semiconductor industry have given us so many hi-tech products that are getting faster, smaller and cheaper.

Sankalp Verma, our next pathbreaker, Technical Lead at Applied Materials (AMAT), uses high end electron microscopes to look for defects in micro-fabricated devices at nanoscale.

Sankalp talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about his PhD project related to development of a biodegradable flexible sensor that drew him to the area of micro-fabrication for biological applications and its impact on healthcare.

For students, the world is looking for new technologies to build products that are bio-degradable once their lifecycle is over. Use cutting edge technology to come up with sustainable solutions !

Sankalp, tell us about Your background? 

I was born and brought up in Kanpur (U.P.). My mother was a school teacher in a State Government Primary school and my father was officer superintendent in a degree college. My whole schooling was from one single school that played a very significant role in shaping my career interests. Since early classes, I was more interested in science, particularly in biology, and wanted to be a researcher. Thankfully, when I passed class 10th, my school introduced Biotechnology as a subject in 11th and 12th, so I chose Biology and Biotechnology as my 5th and 6th subjects. I got more interested in biotechnology and decided to pursue my career in the same field, unlike my other classmates who chose their career path to be a medical doctor. 

Apart from academics, I was also very active in other extra-curricular activities. I was the head of the school student parliament and organized many school-level events. During one of our visits to an old age home, I had a realization that no matter what we do or where we are, it is always our duty to give back to the society. I still follow it and try to make sure that in some way or the other, I do give back to the society. 

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation? 

Thanks to my school and our teachers, I got more and more interested in biotechnology and started looking for colleges/ universities that offered courses in Biotechnology. After discussion with my teacher and other relevant people, I understood that VIT was one of the best options for me to pursue a degree in biotechnology and I started preparing for the VIT entrance exam which aligned with my 12th ISC syllabus. 

I secured a decent rank in the VIT entrance exam and got an admit in the 4-year B.Tech Biotechnology program. By the end of my first semester, I knew I had to pursue a PhD in order to get the required knowledge and temperament to be a researcher. Therefore, I started preparing myself accordingly. I joined a research lab as an intern and started working in the evenings in order to gain more hands-on knowledge and to develop strong basics. 

Prior to my last semester, I was interested in protein biology and wanted to pursue my PhD in the same. I appeared for GRE and started applying for direct PhD in US & UK universities. I failed to get an admit from any US university but could get admits from two universities from UK. However, these universities were not providing any scholarship for the first year, so I had to forego of the opportunities. 

As a part of my B.Tech project, I got an opportunity to work on a project at IIT Kanpur. The project was at the interface of materials science and biology. This is where I got exposed to the field of Materials Science and chose to go for a PhD in Materials Science from IIT Kanpur. 

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career

My B.Tech project was on mammalian protein expression and purification in bacterial cells. Though, my role in the project was related to protein biology, I got interested in the following steps of the project, where these mammalian proteins were to be patterned at micron length scales using conventional lithography (a process niched in the semiconductor industry). I had read about nanofabrication during bachelors but never actually worked in that area. It was totally different from what I had been doing during my bachelors (protein biochemistry), and as they say, “seeing is believing”, this project got my interest and fascination in the area of microfabrication. 

Further, during my PhD, I got more involved in other techniques that are regularly used in the semiconductor industry, but I used them for biological applications (sensors and flexible electronics). 

My other lab-mates were working in the area of bioplastics. Their aim was to replace conventional plastics, that do not degrade in the natural environment for hundreds of years, with new materials that can perform like conventional plastics but do not stress our environment further.

I combined my area of research with my lab’s research theme and decided to work on a material that could be used for developing sensors but at the same time, is biodegradable. The final product should allow semiconductor processes to be performed on it, and once its life cycle is over, it can be degraded easily in the natural environment.

All along my journey through my PhD, my thesis supervisor played a pivotal role in cultivating my interest in the field of micro-fabrication; and by the end of my PhD, I was looking for full time industry positions in the field of micro-fabrication. 

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path 

My first job came through LinkedIn, where one of my connections had shared/liked an opening in a healthcare-based start-up. The job profile aligned well with what I was looking for and I applied. After 2 rounds of interview, I was offered the role of a senior scientist which I accepted. 

At my first job, we worked on developing cost-effective and indigenous biosensors for diagnostics applications. My role was to develop new chemistries, design and validate microfluidic cartridges and take care of the microfabrication requests from the customers. In this current role, my background in biology, microfabrication and polymers helped me handle the tasks at hand and at the same time develop a deeper understanding of the newer projects coming our way.

I stayed in the organization for about a year and worked on healthcare-based projects related to microfluidics, micro-fabrication and polymers. 

After spending about a year in that organization, I made a switch to AMAT, where currently I work in the semiconductor metrology and inspection domain.

How did you get your first break? 

Towards the end of my PhD, I became very active on LinkedIn and kept my profile up to date. I connected with a lot of people who were working in profiles like the ones that I was looking for and spoke to them over calls, LinkedIn chats and emails. It helped me get insights about how to approach people/organizations and how it is not always a good strategy to run behind ‘big-brands’. 

I got to know about my first job through LinkedIn, when one of my connections shared/liked an opening in a healthcare-based start-up. 

What were the challenges you faced? How did you address them? 

Transitioning from academics to industry is in itself a big challenge. Academics allows one to define their own problems and timelines, whereas in the industry, the market defines the problems and the timelines. 

However, another big challenge for me was to finish my thesis on time in order to join my first job. My thesis supervisor was very understanding and co-operative and helped me finish my thesis within the timelines so that I could join the industry. 

Where do you work now? Tell us about your work

Currently, I am working as a Technical Lead in an organization named Applied Materials (AMAT). AMAT is one of the leading semiconductor manufacturing equipment providers in the world. People have often heard of semiconductor manufacturers like Samsung & Intel. AMAT provides them the equipment, with which they make semiconductor chips. 

Currently, I work in AMAT’s metrology team. We use high end electron microscopes to look at defects that are roughly 100 times smaller than the thickness of a single strand of human hair (~150 microns). 

In the semiconductor industry, with every passing year, the size of electronic devices (e.g. transistors) keeps getting smaller. From a few hundreds of nanometers to a few tens of nanometers. Now, fabricating these devices at such smaller length scales, comes with its own share of problems. First of all, fabricating them at such small length scales itself becomes a challenge. The second challenge that comes up is to make sure that the device is defect free, or, is fabricated at a very high accuracy. For instance, a device that should be 20 nm in size, can fail catastrophically if it becomes 30 nm in size.

Our team works to tackle this second challenge. We, the metrology team, try to measure the device dimensions and look for defects in the fabricated device. 

We work at the forefront of semiconductor technology, where we not only deal with technical/engineering problems, but also need to understand and act according to the driving force of the electronics market. As I mentioned earlier, we use electron microscopes for looking at structures that are few nanometres in size. Therefore, it becomes essential for us to understand the wave-particle duality of electrons, something that is taught in our schools. However, one major skill set that we use daily is to ensure that the work keeps moving, no matter what. If something does not go as planned, we cannot sit back and wait for it to get fixed; we need to find alternatives in order to keep moving or ensure the flow continues. 

How does your work benefit society? 

To answer this question, let me give you a perspective. Today, a typical car uses around 50-100 electronic sensors, and this number is expected to increase exponentially as cars get “smarter”. 

Even our smartphones are getting smarter day by day. They are not only getting faster and lighter, but their overall cost has come down. This was made possible by the advancements in the semiconductor industry. As the transistors shrunk in size, we also advanced our technology to ensure we can measure them with equal accuracy and ensure that the devices can meet the expected performance standards. 

Our work does not directly payback to society, but what we do eventually helps make these electronics much more efficient, smaller and cost-effective. 

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you! 

One of the memorable works that is very close to me is my final PhD project. A biodegradable flexible sensor that combines polymers, microfabrication and biotechnology. 

Your advice to students based on your experience? 

Based on my experience so far, I would suggest a few things to students. 

First, be open to everything. There are vast possibilities out there, if one thing does not work, look for other options, but do not give up

Second, most of the time, we try to focus only on technical skills but fail to realize that non-technical skills are equally important. Skills like, how to communicate, how to think out of the box, and things as trivial as writing an email, play a crucial role in our overall growth. With schools incorporating these skills into the curriculum, today’s generation has this huge opportunity lying in front of them. Utilize all the resources available. Sometimes, these transferable skills become more important than the non-transferable skills. 

Third advice, that I hold very close to myself, is that our degrees and education does not define us, instead what we choose to do with it, makes all the difference.

Future Plans? 

As of now, I plan to work in the metrology domain but would eventually like to move to the domains where semiconductor processes and technology are helping solve problems outside of the semiconductor industry, namely healthcare and pharma.