While many UB students spent their summer vacations basking in the sun or visiting relatives, Stacey Serafin tightly packed her car with all her belongings and drove five days cross-country to Oregon, where she served as a research and development intern for Intel Corp., developer of the Pentium processor.
Serafin, a senior physics major, worked alongside Intel engineers in a "pathfinding" group, responsible for studying one portion of a personal-computer motherboard and developing an idea for enhancing or replacing its components. Serafin's responsibility was to conduct experiments to determine if the idea was feasible.
"We have an idea and now we have to develop some sort of way to implement it to see if the idea will work," said Serafin. "They need someone to understand the implementation and actually do the work."
The physics major made the jump into computer engineering when Cemalettin Basaran, a UB assistant professor of civil engineering, was conducting experiments on computer chips with his graduate students. He sought out physics undergraduates to make diffraction gradings, tools that separate the different wavelengths light, to make patterns of computer chip cross-sections visible.
Serafin was hired immediately because of previous experience in a physics laboratory and with many of the machines Basaran required for the position. She did not find the transition from physics to computers particularly difficult.
"There's a lot of things that are interrelated between physics and building a computer," said Serafin. "There are a lot of principles that physics will cover that are applied through engineering."
When describing how she landed her internship at Intel, Serafin said she "just kind of fell into it." Intel employee Terry Dishongh, one of Basaran's college friends, suggested that Intel was seeking summer interns. When Basaran approached Serafin about the position, she said she was unsure and was considering taking summer courses. Another student of Basaran's accepted the position instead, but later rejected it in favor of a similar opportunity in France.
Basaran then recommended Serafin, whom he described as a "super worker." The professor was impressed by her determined attitude and raved about an incident when Serafin flew down to Florida to seek the assistance of a professor with a project Basaran had assigned her.
"I said to myself, 'wow, I have never seen anybody like that before,'" Basaran said.
Serafin was interviewed and was offered the position at Intel. Basaran said this was very rare, since the company usually only accepts graduates or students from schools such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University.
"[Intel] needed somebody and I was just like, 'well, Oregon isn't a bad state, I've never been there, so why not,'" said Serafin.
Once installed in her position, Serafin had to quickly learn Microsoft Power Point, design experiments, determine which computer parts were needed and order them as well as reserve time on "The Floor" - the ground level of her building where prototype motherboards are built for use in experiments.
"It's a multi-dimensional effort, that's for sure," said Serafin. "There are a lot of people involved so you have to be peripherally aware."
Serafin would regularly attend meetings with Intel engineers, was expected to present a weekly progress report, participate in problem solving and develop new ideas.
"I would be at these meetings every week with these people trying to understand what they're talking about and they would ask me for reports," she said. "I was really motivated and every week, I would have a report."
In the end, Serafin received an "outstanding" on her performance review, the highest grade possible and was invited to return to the company upon graduating UB. Her bosses and fellow employees at Intel, however, were initially skeptical as to whether she could hold her own amongst the virtually all male staff, each holding master's and Ph.D.s in addition to other interns from top-tier schools.
"My adman (a type of secretary) sat me down a week before I left and said it was weird seeing a tall, skinny, blonde girl walk in the door that was supposedly a physics major and supposed to do all these jobs," she said.
According to Serafin, Dishongh, her manager at Intel whom she now regards as a close friend and confidant, admitted that he "set her up to fail," because Basaran had told him she could be "thrown into any situation and make it work." When she arrived, Dishongh handed Serafin a project goal and a list of e-mail addresses and titles of people to speak with. He expected a progress report a week later.
"He gave me very little to work with," said Serafin. "He set me up for a really hard time and said I did very well."
The Intel internship also presented another challenge for Serafin before she even arrived in Oregon - finding an apartment and a female roommate. She found a place to live from a packet of brochures of various nearby apartments and condominiums, but had to settle for a male roommate because the only available woman was 50 years old with three cats.
"[The woman] said, 'I have a room to rent but you can't have any visitors and I don't want your stereo too loud," laughed Serafin. "So I said, 'I don't want to ruin my experience with that.'"
Her favorite aspect of the Intel internship was "the people," who Serafin said treated her as an "equal," which was a welcome change from the hierarchy of the academic world. She noted that regardless of what degree or position they held, everyone had the same size office and was on a first-name basis with each other.
"They really want you to have a free flow of ideas," she said. "They don't want you to be hindered by a 'you're the doctor, I'm the student' atmosphere."
Acting upon Dishongh's advisement, Serafin is currently researching graduate programs at Georgia and California Tech, but she is also hoping to secure a more permanent position at Intel.
"[Intel] will take the data I got and now they're going further with it," said Serafin. "It's possible that in the future, I will see some of the things that I developed on a motherboard that everyone will buy."