MSE M.Eng. projects essential to alumni success

Cornell MSE M.Eng alum Nitika Thakral '20

Some students with a four-year undergraduate degree in materials science decide to jump right into the world of work. Others know that they would like to explore further research and the possibility of teaching, so they often look for a Master’s of Science or a doctoral program where they can continue their studies.

What about those students who know they want to join industry, but hope to do so with advanced technical and practical skills that would enhance their value to employers?

For these students, Cornell’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering (MSE) offers a professionally-oriented Masters of Engineering (M.Eng.) program. As the program’s website says, “Cornell M.Eng. graduates can be found in almost every field related to the physical sciences and engineering. Many students leverage the advanced problem-solving skills developed in this program to pursue leadership careers in business, technology management, or governance. Cornell is one of only a few institutions in the U.S. to offer this type of program.

This two-semester program in Materials Science and Engineering includes classroom work in core areas of study as well as one management course and six technical elective credits. But the key part of the M.Eng. experience is the corporate-sponsored project each student works on. The project counts for anywhere from four to eight credits and is done in close coordination with a representative from the sponsoring company.

Rather than speak in generalities, let’s look at a recent MSE M.Eng. student and her project to give a small taste of what is possible.


Nitika Thakral ’20 M.Eng.

Thakral earned her undergraduate degree in materials science at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, where she had several research experiences, including an internship with 3M working with ceramics. Thakral says, “That internship helped me realize that I liked doing applied work on actual products that people interact with.” As she was preparing to graduate, Thakral considered pursuing a Ph.D. and she also thought about going straight into work as a materials scientist.

In the end, however, she decided to come to Cornell to earn an M.Eng. “In my late-senior year I went on a search to see what was the next up-and-coming material where there were challenging things being done in materials science,” says Thakral. She decided that she wanted to immerse herself in electronic materials. And she understood that to pivot away from ceramics and into a new field, she would need more schooling.

“I still wasn’t sure if I would want to continue on for a Ph.D. or join industry when my Master’s was done,” says Thakral, “so I was looking for a program that would give me both technical skills and professional (or so-called ‘soft’) skills.” Thakral found that Cornell’s MSE M.Eng. checked all of the boxes for her. “In Cornell’s project-based learning I knew I would be doing a real-life project with an actual company,” says Thakral. “And at the same time, I would be in a team of people, working with electronic materials and getting to know how things are done in industry, and also learning about communication, feedback, and leadership.”

The project Thakral ended up immersing herself in was called ‘Switching Mechanisms in Bilayer Memristors for In-Memory Computing’ and was done in collaboration with a high-tech Ithaca company called Xallent. Xallent describes itself as a company that “designs, develops, manufactures, and markets proprietary hardware and software tools for micro and nanoscale measurements.”  Xallent’s patented probe cards and nanoprobers are used for imaging, electrical, and mechanical testing of semiconductor devices and thin film materials.

Thakral worked with Xallent’s Director of Research Dr. Mehmet Ozdogan on a project focused on investigation of a bilayer memristor composed of two oxides (A and B) as active switching layers. Thakral says, “Several studies have shown the remarkable improvement in performance when an additional oxide layer was added to a unipolar (single oxide) memristor. The aim of this project was to understand the underlying mechanisms behind the device improvement. Also, I did a market analysis of memristive technology for applications in non-volatile memory, in-memory computing, and neuromorphic computing--including understanding market trends and size. I looked at competitive landscape of the market and identified the major players.”

Thakral is not the only Cornell MSE M.Eng. student to have worked with Xallent. Ozdogan says, “with its world-renowned faculty coupled with intelligent student body, Cornell’s MSE Department has been a great partner in working to discover and test new materials. Cornell has some of the brightest engineering minds in the nation and being able to collaborate with its faculty and students has been a great asset to us.”

For Thakral, the project immersed her in a real-world project with actual consequences for an existing company. She got invaluable experience along with her Masters of Engineering degree. Xallent benefitted from market analysis, scientific reviews, device fabrication, testing, and reporting. The company continues to utilize the materials from this project in its product development.

Ozdogan gives an excellent summation of how these M.Eng. projects are a true win-win situation: “Xallent offers an intellectually challenging and real-world industrial experience to Cornell MSE M.Eng. students. We provide the resources for students to apply classroom knowledge to create disruptive technological innovations. Even though we are an independent business entity, we are part of the bigger Cornell community. We conduct part of our research and development activities at the Cornell NanoScale Facility (CNF) and Cornell Center for Materials Research (CCMR) where students get the opportunity to gain experience in semiconductor device research and manufacturing. As a small business, we get to work with very bright students as well as enjoy reduced rates on the use of Cornell facilities. We look forward to many years of highly productive interactions with Cornell’s MSE Department.”

Currently Thakral works in Project Management as part of the GOGlobal Functional Graduate Program at EMD Electronics.

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