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Listen or download interview (mp3, 32 minutes, 30MB)
Despite her engineer father’s best attempts to dissuade her from following in his footsteps, Ellen Williams was a born scientist. She grew up tinkering and taking things apart, and when she discovered chemistry in high school, she was hooked. Williams’ interest in chemistry—and, in particular, her interest in what happens to the stuff around us on the very smallest scales—led her from Michigan to the California Institute of Technology, where she worked to understand the catalysts that speed up common chemical reactions and where she met her husband, the astrophysicist Neil Gehrels. Later, when the two made their way to Maryland, Williams pioneered the use of very powerful electron scanning tunneling microscopes to study electronic materials like silicon. Her insights have helped engineers develop more stable circuits in computers and other electronics, and may one day give rise to more stable nanodevices—miniscule machines with a big impact on everything from microchips to medicine. Williams is the Chief Scientist at BP p.l.c. in London, England. She was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2005.
Williams recalls growing up in Detroit amid the urgings of her father—a Ford engineer—to be a computer programmer instead of an engineer. Williams nevertheless becomes a bit of both, as her desire to be a chemist leads her to learn how to handle heavy machinery and delicate materials with equal aplomb. Williams remembers feeling like an odd outsider until she arrives in Caltech and finds herself surrounded by people who share her interests—among them her husband, an astrophysicist. The scientific couple happily—and luckily—land jobs in the same place after graduate school, and proceed to carve out their professional niches. For Williams, this means shifting from chemistry to physics, and translating her work with catalysts into a new career with electronic materials. She teaches herself physics, builds her own high-powered electron scanning tunneling microscope, and sets out to understand how and why silicon surfaces—the building blocks of electronic circuits in computers, cell phones, and other devices—go unstable. She explains the toll that atomic interactions can take on a material over time, and how her work helps engineers predict where their materials might fail.
Last Updated: 03-25-2010
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The audio files linked above are part of the National Academy of Sciences InterViews series. Opinions and statements included in these audio files are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Academy of Sciences.