How academic-industry collaborations are changing engineering education


Changing engineering education through academic-industry collaboration

Electrical and computer engineering assistant professor Shaloo Rakheja is an expert in nanoscale device modeling. But how did she get there? Here, the proven pioneer talks all things CHIPS Act, her non-traditional upbringing and her mission to inspire the next generation of electrical engineers.

Interviewed by Eleanor Wyllie

Can you tell me a bit about your backstory? How did you first get into science?

I grew up in a very non-traditional family. My mom was the breadwinner, and she did her master's in chemistry after she got married. She was a high school math and science teacher as well. She gave me the motivation to think about science and do projects at home with her and it was lovely just to be able to talk to her on that level. 

I did my undergrad [degree] in India, and it's very different from here. We do a central test that’s pretty much just math, physics and chemistry. All the students in the country take one standard exam and 150,000 students compete for only a few thousand spots. It was brutal. But I prepared for it, I got lucky, and I made it. I went to one of the best schools in India for engineering - the Indian Institute of Technology. My studies there gave me a different perspective on science. I just couldn't see my life without it at that point. 

You’re the director of the Center for Advanced Semiconductor Chips with Accelerated Performance (ASAP), a new center for industry-academia collaboration. Why is this so important?

In academia, we come up with great ideas, but a lot of the time we don't have that industry perspective. By listening to each other, we can understand the problems that we're facing, and meet in a middle ground where we can transform science into technologically useful products. In the semiconductor industry, that's really important.  Our hope is that by bringing industry, academia and government together, we can learn from each other and figure out how to do science collectively for the greater good of our society. 

I also want to give our students early exposure to the problems faced by the microelectronics industry. If students are working on projects funded by industry, they get direct mentorship from industry members. This inspires them to explore new directions and develop a network. A lot of these students will go into industry. It's important to find areas where students feel inspired.

Our hope is that by bringing industry, academia and government together, we can learn from each other and figure out how to do science collectively for the greater good for our society.

— Shaloo Rakheja 

What is your center doing to meet the U.S. CHIPS Act goals?

The idea for our center came before the CHIPS Act. This has been a long time in the making, because winning an NSF proposal takes a lot of time, effort and preparation. In 2020, as the world shut down for COVID, our Holonyak Micro & Nanotechnology Lab director at the time started conducting brainstorm Zoom meetings. One of the ideas: we have all these great researchers and three Independent Research Units (IRUs) on our campus. Why don't we develop a vision for microelectronics that ties in all three units, as well as working with industry and government?

We started exploring some of the opportunities that existed for us to get funding. An IUCRC (Industry-University Cooperative Research Center), seemed like the best fit and we had some great ideas on what kind of science we wanted to do. We put in our white paper on September 7, 2020, followed by a planning grant proposal in 2021 and a Phase 1 grant in 2022. Our NSF Phase 1 grant came on December 13, 2022. 

I think our work is very synergistic with what the CHIPS Act is demanding. The most important part of that act is twofold: to create a foundation wherein more of the chip manufacturing can take place in-house in the United States, and to train the workforce in these manufacturing processes, which require everything from conceiving an idea, to maintaining the machines and the systems and testing and prototyping. 

We already have a great industry base within ASAP, and we're constantly recruiting new members. In July, we are hosting a workshop in Chicago, and our hope is to brainstorm ideas for how we can all work together within the CHIPS Act framework. 

Then there’s workforce support. I'm hoping that as our center matures, we will understand more about the needs of our companies and develop a very rigorous education and training program for our students. We really want to develop updated content and curricula, so that our students get inspired and can understand how their undergrad training will fit into this broader scheme of things.

What's new with your current research?

I'm probably one of only two or three theorists that sit in a lab that houses our clean room. I'm in a very unique position because I'm not an experimentalist, I'm not a tool user, but I do work heavily with experimentalists. In my research, the overarching goal is to understand how materials behave at the nanoscale and how nanoscale properties of that material translate into device functionality. Eventually, I want to work on devices and model them, so that I can tell experimentalists, “hey, this is what you're seeing in experiments, but this is what went wrong, or this is what went well. So this is how you can improve upon it and make it better.” I love to provide that theoretical rigor to an experimental investigation. 

I have two main focus areas. The first is high frequency materials. I'm just fascinated by high frequency, and I think that's because when I was a kid, we didn't have internet – I didn't even have a television, mainly because my parents couldn't afford it. Imagine how far we've come since then. And that transformation is really because of the underlying technology making Wi-Fi and high-speed wireless communication work – semiconductors. So, my first research focus is on III-nitride materials, gallium nitride for example. We try to model it, to understand the electrical performance that this material and device could have at high frequency, even terahertz frequencies. We are thinking about scaling up wireless speeds by an order of magnitude or more. How do you do that without an appropriate underlying material base or a device base that can deliver this high-frequency performance while also giving you high power? This is a fascinating area to investigate. 

The second part of my research is a bit different. We look at magnets. These are not your typical fridge magnets – we look at nanoscale magnets, 10 nanometers, 50 nanometers, really small. Magnetic materials have some very interesting properties. Magnets are non-volatile. So why can't we use magnets to make non-volatile memory? In memory you’re either storing bit one or bit zero. That's how your computer processes things, ones and zeros. The idea could be if I take this very, very small magnet and it's pointing up, I call that bit one. Then I toggle that magnetic orientation and make it point in the other direction, and that could be bit zero. Our demands for memory are growing. When you're looking for this ideal, holy grail memory, you want it to be low power, high speed, as small as possible. And you want it to retain data for a very long time. You want it to be reliable. Today we don't have a front-runner material. I'm betting on magnets. 

In science, even if your research shows that this is not going to work, it's a great result because then you could potentially prevent other people from investing in it or wasting their time. Research is not just about positive results. Research is about finding limitations, challenges and opportunities. 

I'm just fascinated by high frequency, and I think that's because when I was a kid, we didn't have internet. I didn't even have a television, mainly because my parents couldn't afford it. Imagine how far we've come since then.

— Shaloo Rakheja 

What have you accomplished that makes you the proudest?

I’m from India, nothing I do will ever be good enough for my mom. It’s difficult because academia is a very competitive world. This community is filled with brilliant scientists, I am so inspired by them. And then I think, “my goodness, I will never be as good as them.”

Then I zoom out a bit and look at things that motivate me to be here every day. My biggest, proudest accomplishments are my students. I train them, I spend time with them, and hopefully I tell them that the most important thing in this life is to be a good human being. My undergrads will often come back to visit or send me letters. My graduate students carry out the name of the lab and do great things.

It’s the day-to-day things that make me the proudest: teaching well, making sure my students understand things. That for me is my biggest accomplishment, when students are able to see the big picture and go out and really make Illinois proud.

What are the biggest misconceptions you hear about microelectronics and semiconductors?

For a long time, our society didn’t really understand what semiconductors and microelectronics are about. The public perception of electrical engineering in general is lacking and I hope we can work to change that, to really make it sound cool and sexy and exciting for our students. Today, people think AI and machine learning are cool, and that’s great. However, they don’t understand that everything driving AI and machine learning is hardware made out of semiconductors and microelectronics. And those who understand semiconductors a little better have this perception that it’s old, it’s not as cool. Today, if you go to Silicon Valley, you get a lot more funding in a software-oriented startup. 

I think it’s going to change – the government and universities are taking the right steps to educate people. I’m very hopeful for the future. 

What inspires you?

In my research, what inspires me the most is coming up with great but unexpected results after spending days and days working on it. That doesn’t happen every day, but it does happen. In the broader picture, I have a lot of projects with industry. The best thing is when our company uses our products, our code, our understanding to accelerate their product design.

I believe in open-source code, I love the idea of creating open-source material for semiconductors. Kids love AI today because everything they do in machine learning is open source. It’s not hidden behind paywalls or copyright. I hate that in semiconductors everything is proprietary, we don’t have access to design tools or models to be able to accomplish the same amount of stuff that software people can do. 

In the last couple of years I haven’t found the time to do open-source code because it takes a lot of effort to make a code that others can download and use. I hope that in the future I’ll be able to spend more time doing that.

What advice do you have for other people who would like to follow in your footsteps?

I think the biggest thing I’ve learned in my life is to be happy with what you’re doing. But you can’t skip the growing pains. When I graduated from undergrad I was a very low-level bench engineer at Intel, soldering things onto motherboards to test them. At the time I did not appreciate it much, and I was being paid very little. But I do think there was a lot of value in that. Not everything you do will be the end goal, but try to find a place in your life where you feel happy inside. Don’t look at it hour by hour or day by day. Zoom out a bit.

In terms of semiconductors, I think this is the best time to be in semiconductors. There is a lot of hype, there’s going to be a lot of investment. There are many areas in semiconductors where a person can learn, grow and make changes. If there was ever a good time to be part of this, it’s right now. 

Follow Shaloo Rakheja on LinkedIn.

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This story was published June 27, 2023.