Doctoral student makes waves—at lightning speed

Follow Michelle Cometa on Twitter
Follow RITNEWS on Twitter

A. Sue Weisler

Monica Kempsell Sears has taken some big steps in technology that demands the precision of millionths of meters. The microsystems doctoral student is in the midst 
of research in manipulating wavelengths of light.

Monica Kempsell Sears finds the biggest thrills in the smallest details of nanolithography and in manipulating wavelengths of light. But even she is surprised she found her focus so early. 

“It’s so unusual to be so directed,” she says. “I feel lucky to be so passionate about something. A lot of people take a long time to figure out what their passion in life is. I fell in love with lithography in high school.”

The “light bulb” went on for her while she was a student at Oregon Episcopal School during Discovery Week, an internship for seniors. She interned at a silicon wafer company where she learned how they were made.

“I was assigned to write a pamphlet for guests to the company on different semiconductor fabrication processes,” she explains. “Lithography was one of them. It was really interesting to me, not only because it uses light—and I have always found light fascinating—but because it is the one process that really defines the lateral dimensions of the circuit. So lithography can enable technology to get smaller and faster.”

Sears enrolled in RIT’s microelectronic engineering program in 2002. But it would turn out to be too big a move across the country for Sears, who was born in Alaska and raised in Beaverton, Ore. She returned home after just one year and completed undergraduate work in electrical engineering at Oregon State University. She interned at Intel during summers with a group called Resolution Enhancement Techniques, which only hires employees with doctoral degrees. Sears had to make some career decisions—even if it meant uprooting again. She re-considered RIT, returning with more confidence, coursework and experience. She’s been moving at the speed of light ever since—the dean’s list, getting involved in the student and professional chapters of the International Society for Optics and Photonics and the Optical Society of America and co-authoring papers for peer-reviewed journals. She’s received several important scholarships, most notably a National Science Foundation Fellowship and has spent a year at IMEC, the Interuniversity Microelectronics Centre, a prestigious international semiconductor research consortium in Leuven, Belgium. 

The consortium is known for its state-of-the-art nanotechnology laboratories and its staff of technicians, educators and industry professionals from the top semiconductor manufacturing companies in the world. Professor Bruce Smith, Sears’ Ph.D. research adviser and the director of the microsystems engineering doctoral program, recommends students for the intensive internships. It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work alongside researchers developing the newest applications for computer chip technologies. 

“With the research she is conducting in advancing the resolution capabilities of nanolithography, Monica is becoming a leader in the field,” Smith says. “She is certainly an integral part of our research group at RIT.”

Sears made her first trip to Belgium in 2007. Her projects were in the area of inverse lithography and double patterning, two key processes to prepare the surface of computer chips for additional transistors. Since then, she has returned to the consortium twice to utilize its facilities for her dissertation research on pupil wavefront manipulation. 

“I’ve always wanted to be one of the people who figures out how to push this field further and further—and now I am.”