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A Human Rx for Depression in Business

This is a story for those in business who are depressed about the possibility that our technological lead is faltering, about the dearth of Americans studying hard science or about the futility of individual initiative.

To anyone subject to fits of such despair, I offer Barbara Neuhauser, human Prozac without the side effects.

An energetic professor of physics at San Francisco State University, Neuhauser has poured three years of sweat and $50,000 of her own money into the creation of a microfabrication laboratory of the kind that would cost millions retail.

The result (for a mere $250,000 so far) is a working facility that gives her devoted students the kind of knowledge you can’t get from studying books or even using equipment, because the students actually built the place, then modified much of the stuff they installed.

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Their experience is crucial because, while America struggles to maintain its lead in technology, there are growing signs that it is losing the battle of high-tech manufacturing to Japan and other competitors. If we do lose, don’t blame Neuhauser. When her students graduate, they know how to make semiconductors from scratch.

“She’s a modern-day hero,” says graduate student Enrique Agorio.

Barbara Neuhauser is a diminutive 42-year-old Stanford Ph.D. who seems to talk at the speed of light and won’t take no for an answer. She started at SF State in 1987, convinced that studying particle physics wasn’t enough. She and her students needed to do particle physics, and for that they needed a physics laboratory.

Stanford has a beauty. So does UC Berkeley. SF State doesn’t have that kind of money, but Neuhauser was undeterred.

Armed with just $15,000 from the university, she and her students set out in 1988 to create a pressurized clean room, in which the atmosphere is robbed of particles that might interfere with supersensitive equipment. In that room, Neuhauser and her dozen students would make superconductivity devices that could detect telltale sound waves left behind by colliding subatomic particles.

Neuhauser’s students are looking for “wimps,” or weakly interacting massive particles, which is akin to searching for angels. Existing largely as a matter of faith, these subatomic particles are invisible, and zillions could dance on the head of a pin.

“It’ll give us a better idea of whether the universe will keep expanding or will collapse back together,” explains graduate student Louis Nuyens.

This sounds abstruse, but in fact Neuhauser’s students are conducting an inquiry into the essential nature of reality. While they’re at it, they’re gaining hands-on experience in technology used for everything from semiconductors to disk-drive manufacturing.

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“I wanted the students to learn the stuff they’d need in the Silicon Valley,” she says.

For instance, they learn to imprint a pattern on a silicon wafer using photo- or electron-beam lithography, or wet or dry etching. They also learn evaporation of films and “sputtering,” both means of depositing super-thin coatings. All these techniques are used to make integrated circuits as well.

“They’re working on a very particular kind of sensor, but it teaches the students a whole range of skills,” says Richard A. Osburn, co-chairman of the American Vacuum Society’s Northern California chapter, a semiconductor trade organization.

Because they had no money, Neuhauser and her students did almost all the work themselves--drywall, ducts, painting, concrete, floor tiles, you name it. Neuhauser did the plumbing herself.

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A clean room is useless without equipment, and the stuff Neuhauser needed is expensive. So she went in search of surplus.

As it turns out, there is plenty of used chip-making machinery in Northern California. Fast-changing technology and the turbulent world of high-tech start-ups leave lots of castoffs. Neuhauser says many of these are bought for cash by Asians, who ship them home.

An electron-beam writer can cost up to $4 million, but Neuhauser and her students managed to rig one up for less than $10,000. They got an electron microscope for $1,500. And they paid $200 each for diffusion furnaces that grow oxide on silicon, a key first step in making semiconductor devices.

“Almost everything is begged or borrowed,” Neuhauser says.

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Osburn and others in Silicon Valley helped by directing her to companies with extra equipment, and vice versa.

Stanford helped too, selling castoffs at cut rates when it built its new Center for Integrated Systems. In Neuhauser’s clean room, even the coatrack and lab coats come from SF State’s rich neighbor down the peninsula. An inveterate scrounger, Neuhauser bought a used car from Stanford’s chief engineer.

Besides her own money, she got a bit more from SF State and gained grants from the National Science Foundation and other organizations. She even won a Presidential Young Investigator Award, which brought $62,500.

Funding wasn’t her only obstacle. It took state officials six months to decide whether to let her punch a whole in the side of the university’s hulking science building for an air intake to keep the basement clean room pressurized, and she says SF State takes two years to make even a minor capital appropriation.

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Agorio says Neuhauser’s determination made the difference: “She’s a real nice lady, but she can be tough as nails.”

Visit the lab now, and the students will whip up a few neat-looking circles of silicon and titanium known as phonon sensors. The titanium is the sensitive part and offers no resistance to electricity. When struck by sound waves from a hoped-for wimp collision within the silicon, little sections of the sensor suddenly “go normal"--become resistive--and the resulting voltage should give the wimps away.

What the students carry away is just as important. Neuhauser alumnus Tom Larson is now an engineer at Tencor Instruments, a Mountain View semiconductor equipment maker. He’s already using some of the skills he picked up in the SF State lab, and he hopes to use more. “I’m on my way,” he says.


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