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Engineering a better world: A Q&A with Intel’s Erica J. Thompson

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Erica J. Thompson is a principal engineer in Intel’s NAND Design, Technology and Manufacturing group.

 

When Intel Principal Engineer Erica J. Thompson thinks about Black History Month and Engineering Week, she thinks about the generations of Black people who made it possible for her to get to where she is today — and how she can keep paying it forward to help others. Erica shares her journey of finding empowerment through the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) and the importance of uplifting others. 

Can you tell us about your background, and what sparked your interest in engineering?
My grandmother, a direct descendant of a slave, loved math and tinkering. And for her to not only love math, but also teach it to me at a very young age — I felt both excited and empowered. I began to tinker as well. The first thing I ever fixed was a radio, and that gave me the confidence to start fixing bigger and more complex things that we had around the house. It was this confidence that I gained growing up in a household of strong women that led me to get a bachelor’s degree, master’s degree and then a Ph.D. in physics.

What brought you to Intel?
An Intel recruiter reached out while I was finishing my post-doc at CalTech and trying to figure out what I wanted to do. When I visited a fab for the first time, I was awestruck by the millions of dollars’ worth of complex equipment and rare materials. And Intel was trusting it all to us — trusting us to use it to make huge changes in the world. It felt like such an honor, and I was excited by the opportunity to be a part of that.

That sense of endless new challenges and possibilities is why I’ve stayed at Intel for 20 years now. Almost every day, I see something new that I want to explore, a hard problem that no one else wants to touch, or a way to make the world better. For example, I transitioned to the NAND group after hearing how Intel® Optane™ technology could shorten MRI screenings, because my own multiple sclerosis requires me to sit for MRIs twice a year.

What role have Intel’s mentorship and development programs played in your career?
Mentorship is important because, as a Black woman in STEM, I feel a strong sense of responsibility to do right by the people who paved the way for me, and to be a role model for the people who will come after me. Being involved in mentorship has helped me strengthen my leadership and business skills, as well as given me an opportunity to pay that support forward by mentoring others.

I try to uplift others and to build their confidence, just as the mentors in my life have done for me. People do not need to look a certain way or come from a certain background to be a scientist or a leader. It is people’s diversity of experiences and perspectives that make them one.

What challenges and barriers have you encountered as a black woman in STEM that you would like to share, and how have you overcome them?
For me, having a sense of community is key because the attrition rate in STEM for Black people, especially Black women, is so high. Working in the fab is a 24/7 job, so having a strong personal and professional support system makes a big difference.

When I started, I met Ebony Mays. She and I were the only two African Americans on Portland’s Technology Development team for many years, and we were among the very small number of African Americans across Intel who were patenting. We encouraged each other to go further: when one of us got a promotion, we would push the other to get one as well. Having someone to relate to helped me survive and thrive.

What does Black History Month mean to you?
Black History Month means remembering all the people who fought and who are currently fighting so that I and people who look like me have the opportunities that we deserve — to have an education, to be here. Their history is my history.

And it also means paying forward the gifts that they’ve given to me and to the world. That’s why I prioritize giving back to my community and creating more opportunities for the next generation of Black people in STEM.

What advice would you give to other Black engineers?
No matter what, help one another. Lift each other up — not only because it will make you a better engineer and a better leader — but also because getting through the day is easier when you can do the things you like with people you love. Lifting each other up is the most fulfilling thing you can do.

 

 

Learn about how the University of Pisa leverages Intel® Optane™ technology to shorten MRI screenings from 40 minutes to 2 minutes.