Sunday, August 4, 2013

My life (so far) with semiconductors

and why I love dressing like a marshmallow.

I recently left the ivory tower of academia and got a job in the "real world" of semiconductor fabrication, where I spend a large part of my workday shuffling 300 mm silicon wafers around in a class 100 cleanroom, aka "the lab."

There's a very specific set of training and procedures to be allowed into the lab. In the hallway there is a dispenser of plastic shoe covers to put on, and then you must unlock the door with a keycard to enter the gowning room. This is where you don the required hairnet, jumpsuit, hood, face mask, another pair of shoe covers, eye glasses and gloves. Then you must pass through an "air shower" before finally entering the cleanroom.

The idea isn't so much to protect you from anything in the cleanroom, it's to protect the things in cleanroom from dust and from YOU.

This video shows a typical gowning procedure.

I'm not new to cleanrooms. I spent a large part of my dissertation work in the UCSB Nanofabrication Facility, which had similar gowning procedures I use now. I know you can never be in too much of a hurry to either enter or exit the lab as all the gowning and degowning takes some time.

I actually love having to wear a cleanroom suit. This might sound really strange but there's a few good reasons.

First, the act of getting ready to enter the lab is very ritualistic, which helps put me in the mental space to be productive and do work. Those 30 seconds of standing in the air shower with loud jets of cool air blasting at me from all directions are spent thinking about what I'm going to tackle first.

The other reason I like wearing a cleanroom suit is this: Especially as a woman in a VERY male-dominated industry, wearing a cleanroom suit makes me forget what I look like. When I'm in the suit, it doesn't matter. I'm not self-conscious at all. Even my gender is irrelevant. This is huge.

It's not so much that I'm particularly uncomfortable outside the cleanroom. I'm sure I stand-out since there are only a small handful of women who work on my floor of the building, but no one treats me any differently and with a Ph.D. in engineering I'm certainly used to being a minority. Still, there's something so comforting to me about being dressed like an asexual marshmallow. I noticed this in my graduate school work as well, that wearing a cleanroom suit removes any potential for awkwardness when working closely with male coworkers. Even if it's perceived potential for awkwardness on my end. In the cleanroom, I'm at ease. I feel more like an equal because we all look exactly the same.

Of course, the big drawback of everyone looking the same is it can be difficult to tell who's who. The only exposed part of anyone's face is a few square inches of space around their eyes, so you have to get pretty close to someone and look at them dead-on to recognize them. Eventually, you learn to identify your friends and coworkers by how tall and wide they are, or how they walk and carry themselves.

Also, if you meet someone for the first time in the cleanroom, you will need to be reintroduced outside the cleanroom because you will NOT be able to recognize them. At least once I've ran into someone in the gowning room and they told me, "Oh! KK! I had no idea that's what you looked like!" I'm unsure if this was a compliment.

Because of this, it's funny to imagine people who work in a cleanroom having romantic feelings towards someone they work alongside yet don't know what they really look like. Like in this Postal Service video (below).

For fun, I recently started a Tumblr called Cleanroom Missed Connections that explores this idea some more.

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