Delia J. Markiewicz Milliron ’99
Research Staff Member, IBM Research
A broad foundation
The dominant thread in the story of my Princeton education is one of a narrowing path. Before entering college, I was pretty sure I wanted to pursue materials science, yet I chose to attend Princeton—a school without an undergraduate major in this field. I was attracted to the idea of getting a foundation in a related scientific field and learning about materials more generally through the materials science certificate program. Starting from this point, I systematically focused on my deepest interests. Even before arriving on campus my freshman year, I decided I liked the idea of relating molecular-level structure to macro-level properties, so I switched my major from mechanical engineering to chemistry.
The chemistry department not only reflected my fundamental interest, it also offered an amazingly flexible academic program. I used this flexibility to explore all angles of materials science to further my understanding of my own scientific passions. I took classes in a range of engineering disciplines to learn which properties of materials were most intriguing to me.
My freshman departmental adviser also encouraged me to explore the research labs, so I got to try my hand at research in organic chemistry, surface chemistry, and theoretical chemical physics even before settling on a senior thesis topic. Through all this exploration, I discovered that my interest was focused at the interface between chemistry and electrical engineering. This set the stage for my senior thesis and for my doctoral work in the University of California–Berkeley’s Department of Chemistry. In a sense, the doctoral dissertation is the ultimate narrowing of focus; you spend years delving deeply into a research topic and contribute your own advances as the fruit of your efforts.
Creativity and collaboration
Throughout my Princeton experience, I sought to sharpen my focus, to zoom in on that which interested me most. Ironically, the very same flexible learning environment that allowed me to narrow my focus was quietly building a broad and solid foundation. In the chemistry department, creative thinking is not reserved for course selection. Every problem set, every exam, and of course every research problem taught me to think in new terms, to apply diverse knowledge in new ways.
Now, on the far side of graduate school, these are the tools that are enabling me to depart from my carefully narrowed path to build a research program which is, for the first time, truly my own. As before, I find that interfaces offer the most interesting problems. Fortunately, my exploratory path through Princeton left me fluent in diverse disciplines, so I can see these opportunities that lie at the boundaries and communicate effectively with colleagues on the other side of those boundaries. New discoveries arise naturally when divergent ideas are brought together in a new context. At IBM Research that context is another interface—the one that lies between known and unknown, and between established technology and the uncertain future. The future offers a broad range of interesting things on which to focus!