In Conversation with Dr. Máiréad Breathnach of Intel…’I simply followed the subjects I liked most…’

we have been busy catching up with lots of people who work in STEM roles in advance of Science Week 2021.

Dr. Máiréad Breathnach is from Laois originally and works at Intel’s Kildare campus as an Area Co-Ordinator. Máiréad has a PhD and BSc in Applied Physics from the University of Limerick and completed her secondary school studies at the former Brigidine Secondary School at Mountrath.

 

What inspired you to pursue a role in technology?

I don’t recall consciously pursuing a role in technology. There was no one moment of inspiration, and with experience I’ve learned that that’s ok. I simply followed the subjects I liked most and was best at, maths and physics, and my technological career evolved organically from there. In primary school maths was my favourite subject, at junior cert I loved maths and science and for leaving cert I studied chemistry and physics. For CAO applications I wasn’t 100% sure exactly what my career would be, but I knew it would involve science, so I studied Applied Physics at the University of Limerick. The summer I finished my degree there were several options to move into industry, but I didn’t feel I was quite finished with academia, so I successfully applied for the Irish Research Council for Science Engineering and Technology (IRCSET) scholarship and completed a PhD which crossed the disciplines of physics, electrochemistry, microscopy, and materials science. During my postgraduate research I became increasingly interested in technology transfer and as my PhD concluded I was excited to step into industry.  My first industrial role was as a technology development scientist at TFI (Technology from Ideas) an Irish seed investment and commercialisation company that specialises in conducting proof of concept development on early stage, technology-based ideas submitted by academic researchers. This was an exciting role, involving a mixture of market focussed research, lab-based research and development, workshop-based prototyping, intellectual property assessment and protection, obtainment of funding grants, and commercialisation of early-stage technologies. After 3 years in TFI I moved to Intel as I was eager for a new challenge in a larger multinational organization.

What is your role at Intel Ireland and what are some of the key skills required for your job?

At Intel, I work in the Sort Department, which is the wafer testing division of Intel’s Ireland operations. My current title is Sort Area Co-ordinator (AC). This is a project manager role and as AC I am responsible for planning, organizing, and directing the completion of the Sort component of the Intel 4 programme at Intel Ireland. That is, equipping the existing Sort manufacturing facility with the necessary tester fleet to meet the Intel 4 process node capacity requirements, with minimal disruption to existing production.

Key skills are team leadership, communication, networking, self-direction and motivation, sound planning and organization. The rapid pace of change in the semiconductor industry requires a tolerance to ambiguity and the ability to persist through uncertainties and as a result innovate change and continuous improvement. Success in this role requires technical acumen to solve complex technical issues specifically in terms of Intel’s manufacturing operations and tool demolition, install and qualification processes. Financial savviness and a strong understanding of the global supply chain and capacity planning systems are also core skills in the role.

What was your route into this role?

In my almost ten years with Intel, I’ve had the opportunity to work in varied roles, principally within the Sort department. When I joined Intel in 2011, I worked as a parametric test engineer, progressing to module team lead for the group within 12 months. This role enabled professional leadership development as I was accountable for the module’s performance in terms of safety, quality, and output. I was responsible for management of new product and test programme introductions, change control, product and equipment failure debug, team workload prioritization and planning, team skill development, and customer communications and relations.

In 2013, I undertook a temporary assignment as a product quality and reliability engineer with the Corporate Quality Network to develop the Intel® Quark™ processor, the first product designed in Ireland. I gained insight into how a product develops from initial concept and design to the manufacturing of the first microprocessors.

Upon my return to the parametric test module, I spent four months in Portland, Oregon as a seed engineer as part of the technology transfer for the next process node start up in Ireland. Much of this role was learning and documenting the new test process to train my colleagues back home on the technical changes and challenges that we needed to master to ensure our process start-up was a success in Ireland.

Following the start-up, I moved into an integration role, where I worked closely with process engineers, test engineers, and product engineers to maintain and develop quality and reliability standards for the end of line wafer testing processes. This involved continuous risk assessment, identification of potential gaps in our systems, and implementation of robust improvements. In parallel to this role, I took ownership for the Sort department budget forecasting and cost management, and I certified and worked as an IATF 16949 and ISO 9001 internal auditor for Intel’s internal audit programme.

During my time as a parametric test engineer, I lead projects to resolve global parametric testing capacity issues, drove three process node transfers for the parametric test module and twice owned the relocation of the existing tester fleet in addition to the doubling of the tester fleet. This technical experience in addition to my financial role as cost owner were key factors in my progression to my current AC role.

During my career, I’ve spent a maximum of 1 to 3 years in any one role. Once I feel I’ve become an expert in my current role, that’s when I seek out a new role with a new challenge.

 

Why is it important for Intel to get involved in school STEM outreach?

The challenges of tomorrow will be solved by the young people of today and a solid foundation in STEM is a key component to their success. The misconception that STEM subjects are too difficult is a key challenge faced by educators. I observed this in 5th year as my higher-level leaving cert maths class diminished in numbers within the first two weeks of the term, mainly due to an alarming amount of unsubstantiated fear mongering. Challenging these misconceptions is key and an effective method to do so is to nurture an interest and confidence in STEM from a young age. Intel provides STEM-centred tools and resources to educators to foster the next generation of innovators and problem solvers. Each year I participate as a judge in the Intel Mini Scientist. ‘Learning through play’ is widely regarded as central to early years education and the Intel Mini Scientist is an excellent opportunity for primary school students to embrace that concept by exploring science and technology through project-based learning and exhibitions. It’s thrilling to see the children’s excitement and passion, their skills for data collection and analysis and the confidence they display to present their reports. It is also important for the students to see a female judge. They have the opportunity (and they do use it!) to ask me anything about my job.

 

Are there are any specific challenges for women in science and tech now?

The most obvious is the disparity between males and females in STEM, resulting in a lack of female role models to entice more females into STEM, and for those already working in STEM there is low or no visibility to senior female colleagues to encourage more females to apply for senior roles. The message needs to change from highlighting the historical challenges faced by women in STEM to showcasing successful women past and present working in STEM. And while it’s great to showcase women at the top levels of industry such as Sheryl Sandberg, not everyone aspires to be at that level. To attract and retain females in STEM relatable women at all levels need to be celebrated and visible.

I heard a phrase recently ‘if you see it you can be it’.

At Intel, females are the minority in many business groups. The ‘Press for Progress’ group mentoring programme, in which I am a mentor, was established to provide an avenue where females can share their experiences, learn from each other and gain access to a support network. The mentoring sessions facilitate sharing of commons issues (communicating in ways which can undermine their authority, lacking confidence to speak up in a male dominated environment, feeling isolated, unheard, or overlooked, and lacking confidence to voice their ambitions or apply for new roles) and specific techniques, and examples of how to overcome such challenges. I would also advice that females seek out a sponsor (male or female) who is aware of their achievements, abilities, and ambition. A mentor can guide you, but a sponsor can promote your inclusion.

Parents and educators also have a responsibility to ensure visibility to female STEM role models. I had fantastic female role models in secondary school with excellent female teachers for maths, science and leaving cert physics. And as a parent I am conscious of anything my daughter watches. Recently I found myself querying why there is only one female pup in Paw Patrol?! My husband and I tend to guide her towards Ada Twist Scientist and Ridley Jones who have great female role models whilst Wild Kratts has good gender balance. Wonderous Women Who Changed the World and Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls are top of our reading list, and Lego’s Women of Nasa is a popular set in our house.

 

 

Do you think there are any really exciting tech jobs we can hope to see in the next 10 years?

Absolutely. I read recently that an estimated 65-percent of children in the next generation will have jobs that are not even created yet! The current global challenges of climate change and COVID 19 will be integral modulators in the science and technology of the next decade. To combat climate change engineering roles will increase in green energy, conservation, and sustainability, specifically in electric battery development, carbon capture, usage and storage, and hydrogen usage. The current pandemic is certain to drive an increase in focus and funding in the areas of epidemiology and vaccine research. With nine of the world’s top 10 pharmaceutical firms currently based in Ireland I would expect to see an increase nationally in science and engineering roles in the research, development, and manufacture of vaccines.

In the software and IT sector new specialisms will emerge; cryptocurrencies driving the need for digital currency advisors, digital locksmiths playing an important role as the Internet of things and smarter homes become the norm, and commercial drone operators will be key to ensuring our Friday night takeaway arrives on time! Engineering and design roles in cloud computing, gaming, robotics, data analytics, artificial intelligence and information security will continue to expand.

New careers in biomedical science and food engineering will be very exciting. Who knows, someone reading this may yet be an organ harvester or 3D food print engineer of the future!

What would you advise a second level student considering a role in science or tech in the future?

Go for it! Remember it’s not necessary to have an exact dream job in mind, a strong sense of what interests you and a general plan is a good starting point. Your plans will most likely change several times as you learn, your interests evolve, and the world faces new challenges. Regardless of whether you apply for a narrow discipline straight out of leaving cert or choose a more general science or engineering qualification, the core skills will be similar. It will never be an issue to change your mind and the time you’ve spent is never wasted as you’ll have learned along the way. Lateral moves happen right through education and careers. The key thing is to back yourself, put down your first choice regardless of whether you think you’ll get it or not. The worst that can happen is you get another choice from your list, which in any case will most likely bring you to the same career path. Technology and science transform at a rapid pace, as do the plethora of careers to choose from. Yours might not exist today! Be fearless. There’s a quote from Arianna Huffington about how fearless is like a muscle and the more you exercise it, the more natural it becomes to not let fear run your life.