Extraordinary people have shaped the world as we know it today and our Tyndall alumni are no exception. They embody the scientific legacy of Tyndall and continue to make a difference and ripples of impact throughout their careers.
Today, in recognition of our incredible women in engineering, we are proud to feature Dr Isabelle Ferain, Former Research & Development Engineer at Tyndall, who is now Head of the Technology Development group at GlobalFoundries.
Isabelle shares with us her exciting international career journey to date. She takes us on a trip down memory lane as she recalls her favourite Tyndall moments and shares her thoughts on the Institute’s greatest impacts, in acknowledgement of Tyndall’s 40th anniversary.
What is your current role and how different is it from your role in Tyndall?
I am the Head of the Technology Development group at GlobalFoundries, one of the world’s leading semiconductor manufacturers, in Dresden, Germany. My core activities are focused on enabling the development of technology platforms and features, including SOI (Silicon-On-Insulator).
My role in Tyndall, in Prof. Jean-Pierre Colinge and Prof. Cindy Colinge’s team, was centred around the development and characterization of silicon nanowire FETs and on heterogenous integration (direct wafer to wafer bonding).
Much of what I learned under both Prof. Colinges’ tenure at Tyndall still very much applies to my role today. In both cases, we use theoretical and experimental approaches to expand the capabilities of semiconductor-based features. We are deeply engaged with R&D partners within the EU as well.
How did your time at Tyndall progress your career?
I joined Tyndall at a time when state of the art cleanroom capabilities had been introduced. I recall vividly that the chemistry lab and the material characterization labs provided ample resources that researchers could tap into to establish a comprehensive view of the physics of the devices under study. The breadth of manufacturing and characterization capabilities was not only valuable to gain deeper understanding of the semiconductor mechanisms at hand, but it also provided the opportunity to engage with deep-technical experts as well.
The world of semiconductors manufacturing is complex, and so are the tools and processes used, continued collaboration amongst experts is therefore paramount. Tyndall embodied that spirit of collaboration and excellence.
What are you doing now?
After 9 years in various engineering and leadership positions in our GlobalFoundries facility in Malta, New York, I relocated to Dresden a year ago. The team I joined has developed multiple technology nodes that enable connected, intelligent, and secure technologies for automotive, personal computers, smart mobile devices, and home and industrial IoT applications. I have now the privilege to lead this team, and to work with them to develop our technology roadmap. Aside from setting the technology roadmap for the next 5-10 years, in partnership with our business units and customers, my role consists of building and developing an organization who innovates, and delivers differentiated IP.
While the role requires technology development and integration expertise, it is the engagement with my team that motivates me the most.
What inspired you to pursue a career in engineering?
My dad is my number one inspiration. He is retired, after a long career in high-school education. He started his teaching career as Headmaster of the electrical lab. From an early age, he would challenge me with questions in physics and chemistry. Later in my high school years, he was my reference for questions on digital and analog circuits.
In his youth, he wanted to pursue studies in industrial engineering, but his aspirations were cut short due to personal circumstances. I have embraced his dream to become an electrical engineer, and to this day, he still inspires me to do my best whatever circumstances come my way, and to learn and teach every day.
Tell us your best memories of Tyndall
There are many… where to start? I felt privileged when Prof. Jean-Pierre Colinge asked me to co-write a review paper with him for Nature. The preparation of this publication was a very humbling and valuable learning process.
I also remember the excellent partnership with EU R&D Centres and with our team members. I could cite many examples and if I were to summarize it, I would say that the willingness to share and learn was a trait of character that was shared by many at Tyndall, and that in turn made every day of my four years of research enjoyable.
Aside from the learning experience, Tyndall and Cork provided me with the environment and structure which empowered me to strike a balance between my parenting and professional duties. My three children were babies and toddlers at the time when I worked at Tyndall, and although it proved demanding to juggle all at once, I was given flexibility in my work hours and support from my manager.To this day, whenever we mention Cork, my kids face still lights up.
This year we’re celebrating 40 years at Tyndall/ NMRC, what do you think has been Tyndall’s greatest impact?
When I think Tyndall, I think of it as an amplifier of talents across many fields of expertise. I can cite many, from quantum physics to nanoelectronics, heterogenous integration, germanium, and III-V materials and for each of these, I can think of multiple names of researchers who were trained by distinguished experts such as Prof. Colinge, Prof. Paul Hurley, Prof. Martyn Pemble (to cite only a few) and went on to becoming renowned experts in R&D centres and companies around the world. That’s what Tyndall represents to me: an environment where researchers’ inquisitive minds are stretched by Tyndall’s staff, and where the facilities provide all the equipment required to put their hypothesis to test.
Tyndall accelerates the growth of researchers and generates competitive IP, and both can in turn be leveraged and licensed to the semiconductor industry. In these times of semiconductor chips shortage, having an R&D centre like Tyndall as the pipeline for talent and IP growth has become even more critical.
Share with us your career milestones
I double-graduated in Electrical Engineering from Supelec (France) and from the Polytechnique Faculty of Mons (Belgium) and started my career with Alcatel Microelectronics in 2001. After successive experiences in reliability, technology development and process control, I moved on to IMEC in 2004 for my PhD in the field of high permittivity dielectrics and metal gates and then joined Tyndall as a researcher in 2008.
In 2012, I moved to the United States and joined GlobalFoundries in Malta New York. I have successively been a Device Engineering Manager, Assistant to the SVP and Fab GM, Module Engineering Manager (Thin Films) and Global Lead for Technology Transfers. More recently, in 2021, I applied to transfer to our Dresden factory and join the Technology Development team.
It is a deliberate choice that I have made, to regularly challenge myself by embracing roles where I continue to learn and grow. It is not just a strategy to develop and sharpen my own capabilities, it provides opportunities to connect with various sides and leaders of our foundry business. These connections are essential to leaders in our industry, to drive seamless collaboration and alignment inter- and intra-factories.
What’s your advice for those following in your footsteps?
Partner with the experts in your field and put in the effort to work hard and learn from them. There’s a saying, we are the sum of the people we surround ourselves with, and this holds true in professional environments too. If you want to excel at your job, you must invest time and practice, ask questions, and surround yourself with those with the best expertise and the best attitude at work and outside of work.
Who or whom inspires you and why?
My maternal grandfather, who started his printing business from scratch and evolved it into a small-scale family factory. He and my mentors, whom I admire, share these personality traits: a strong work ethic, and a self-drive to do well for their business, their family, and for their community.
I have had many role-models that were women as well, throughout the span of my engineering studies and career. Professor Kristin De Meyer, Professor at K.U. Leuven and my PhD advisor, had a fulfilling academic career and an enthusiasm for innovation that was contagious. I looked up to her as a role model for engineers: always forward looking, an inquisitive and open mind, and thrilled by the perspective of shaping the future of technology.
How do you like to spend your personal-time?
While in New York, I spend almost every weekend in spring, summer and fall working in my garden and caring for the birds. My job is fast-paced, and gardening is an activity that helps me stay ‘grounded’ (no pun intended) to nature’s cycle.It is humbling, soothing, and rewarding to see it evolve year after year.
If you weren’t doing the job you’re doing now, what would you be doing?
I would train to become an Elementary School Teacher. Kids have a talent for creativity and a sense of curiosity that I would strive to nurture and encourage.
What’s a motto you live by?
I call it the ‘4G’ motto: Be Generous and Grateful, have Grit and always be Gracious.
2021 has been a challenging year for many and some have taken it as a time to reflect. What would your own learnings be from 2021?
In the past two years, the pandemic has divided our society: medical staff on the frontline are exhausted. Parents and teachers have had to learn new ways to teach and look after their children, while continuing to work in parallel. Friendships were broken over heated discussions on how to respond to the vaccination mandates. In parallel to dealing with the pandemic, many countries around the world have had to self-reflect on their history and how they will foster more inclusive societies. 2022 must be the year of reconciliation, and for this to happen, I have learned that it starts with being kind to oneself, and by promoting kindness within our own families.