Stratos Genomics Employee Spotlight is an intermittent feature on our blog that highlights our talented and dedicated staff. March's spotlight is on Senior Process Engineer, Steve Hickman.
Describe your role at Stratos Genomics.
I’m a microfabrication engineer, working in the detection engineering team. We’re a small group working on the mechanics of detecting and identifying the Xpandomers. Most days I work apart from the rest of the company, using resources at a shared microfabrication facility to produce test chips for the rest of the detection engineering team. This facility is akin to a machine shop, used by many different companies to produce a range of different products; except instead of lathes and mills, we have scanning electron microscopes and reactive ion plasma etch tools. My current work has two major aims. The first is to produce extremely simplified devices to allow Stratos Genomics to focus on perfecting methods of parallel detection and identification of Xpandomers. The second is to add materials and structures to much more complex devices, integrating CMOS chips custom designed by our electrical engineers to be compatible with our biologically based detection methods.
What do you look forward to when you come to work every day?
I like the latitude I’m given in my work. I work with my colleagues to set shared goals for the microfabricated devices, but beyond that I’m more or less on my own to devise fabrication protocols, design and execute processes and test runs, and evaluate the results. At the fabrication facility, we have the software and tools to take devices from an idea to a finished, verified product. So, if I come up with a new idea on how to improve something I’m working on for the rest of the team, I can – sometimes in a single day – take it from idea to CAD to mask to physical device, and bring it to the rest of the team for further testing. I love being able to see the direct impact of my efforts on both my own research results, and those of my team.
Describe your biggest “win” on a project.
Microfabrication shares a common trait with chemical synthesis, in that there are a lot of little steps that build into a final product. Even though you might master every one of those individual steps, it’s rare that when they’re all put together for the first time, you get any product out at the end. One project, which I had been working on for quite a while, required process development for all the individual steps. It was particularly challenging on one of the last steps, which had low success rate even when performed in isolation, and when added to the full fabrication process had yielded some epic failures. The first time I could run a wafer through the entire process, and see on the scanning electron microscope hundreds of identical features, all in the right place and all the right size, stretching off into the distance - this was a huge win for me.
What’s your favorite thing to do when you’re not at work?
Travel – whether a week somewhere brand new, or just a weekend road trip to a favorite local haunt, I love getting out of whatever town I happen to be living in and seeing new places for the first time, or an old place in a new time. I’ve been fortunate enough to visit every continent, and hop in every ocean (although I only got knee-deep in the Arctic). I also have a life goal to visit every US national park, which I share with at least one other person at Genomics.
Little-known fact about you that would surprise people:
I first was interested in chemistry because as a kid I wanted to be a pyrotechnician, and chemist seemed the best degree for that. My professional track went a bit differently, but I still earned my pyrotechnician operator license when I was in high school, and shot professional shows on the 4th of July, New Years, and festivals for a few years.