December 18, 2008
Everyone experiences at least one defining moment in their career — a meeting or encounter that takes you off one path and places you firmly on another. For LSI's Director of Research and Development, Sally Doherty (E'98), that moment was meeting Jimmy Zhu.
Doherty, an Air Force Academy graduate, was working in the printed circuit industry, but felt generally unhappy with the direction her career was taking. She knew that to have more influence over her future she needed to earn an advanced degree, and from research and some interviews with established professionals, she thought data storage and hard disk research might be an interesting field. She met Zhu, then a professor of electrical and computer engineering and current director of the university's Data Storage Systems Center, and she was hooked.
"I met Professor Zhu, and he was very encouraging and excited about data storage systems research and applied magnetics," Doherty said. "His enthusiasm made me more enthusiastic, and I decided to pursue it further. Basically, it was Jimmy who got me to study data storage systems and to pursue a PhD at Carnegie Mellon."
So Doherty enrolled in the PhD program in the DSSC, and spent much of her time at the center as an experimentalist, focusing on magnetic thin films and giant magnetoresistant multilayers. She also performed micromagnetic simulation using Zhu's model and expertise to help verify some of the conclusions she was making.
"Jimmy was very hands-on when I was there. He interacted daily with us directly in analyzing results and hypothesizing expectations," Doherty said. "That was an amazing collaborative research environment, and was not typical of most other university research groups."
One of the highlights of Doherty's time in the DSSC was the center's move from Hamerschlag Hall to the brand new Roberts Engineering Hall. As if the prospect of sparkling labs with pristine equipment wasn't exciting enough, Doherty was also responsible for selecting, ordering and setting up the lab for her own experimental research. "That was a dream come true for a graduate student — to be able to do that and work with state-of-the-art equipment that was precisely suited for my research. ... I was almost like a kid in a candy store."
Through this hands-on education, Doherty was prepared to move quickly into a research position within LSI's (then VTC) Advanced Development group upon graduating in 1998. She specifically worked on applied magnetics as it relates to hard disk drives and recording systems. But her career was largely a two-way street. While she gave the electronics-focused LSI the expertise it needed in thin films, magnetic sensors, and transducers for recording, she was learning about integrated circuit design and electronics.
Now, 10 years later, Doherty has risen through the company ranks to lead one of LSI's research and development efforts, running a mixed signal integrated circuits team that produces semiconductor chips for hard disk drives. The chips they develop, called read/write electronics, attach to magnetic heads that, ironically, are made of the materials she studied while in grad school at Carnegie Mellon.
"Even today, the learning gained from my training, education and research conducted at Carnegie Mellon is directly applicable to my career. The fundamentals I learned then enable me to be effective in working with customers and determining solutions for their next-generation products," Doherty said. Her success during the last decade at LSI is in no small part due to her DSSC background.
"When I was at the DSSC, all the grad students in the program were taught broadly about the important technical facets of a recording system — signal processing, magnetic sensors, and the fundamentals of materials and thin films," Doherty said. "That kind of broad knowledge base was excellent preparation to succeed in the high-tech industry today. If I had only learned one element of those specialties, where I was focused only on magnetic thin films or very narrowly focused in signal processing, for example, I'd be much less effective in my job today."
Good thing she met Jimmy Zhu all those years ago.