Xuema Li spends her days working with things too small to see.
How small? As small as few nanometers. A nanometer is one millionth
the size of a pinhead. Very, very small.
Her job as a member of HP Labs' molecular electronics team is
nano-scaled material fabrication, which is trying to make silicon
and metal nanowires as small as possible.
"It's hard because we can't see the wires, so we can't tell
if they're good or bad until we look at them under very high-power
magnification scope or some other technique," says Li.
Hard, but exciting. "We're doing something nobody's doing,"
Her team recently announced it had created the highest density
electronically addressable memory reported to date, a 64-bit memory
using molecules as switches.
Li, who joined HP Labs in 2000, moved to the United States from
China with her daughter and husband in 1993. Despite a master's
degree and seven years' experience as an engineer, she spent her
first year in the U.S. as a housewife in Moscow, Idaho while her
husband pursued his PhD.
Life in Idaho was somewhat different from life in hectic Beijing.
"At first it was relaxing not having to wait in line at
the supermarket or fight for space on the bus. I had my own car
and could drive anywhere I wanted," recalls Li. "But
part of me was thinking, 'what am I going to do?' I didn't want
to stay home for the rest of my life."
First she learned English. Then she picked up a second master's
degree in engineering. Then the family moved, from Idaho to Ukiah
in far northern California for his job, then a year later, Li
moved to Silicon Valley to work as an engineer. For two years,
she commuted home to Ukiah on weekends.
At HP Labs, she says, she has the freedom to experiment.
"No matter what idea comes out, my managers always say I
should try it," she says. "They want input from us and
they listen to us."