Materials Engineering Completes the Puzzle

In the quarter of a century since Jim Karl (BSMSE '81) left Purdue, he's been a one-town, one-company man.

Rather than limiting his experience and perspective, though, his 1981 decision to head for Essex, Vermont, and a spot at IBM gave him the chance to be part of unparalleled technological advances—all made with key participation by materials engineers.

"Twenty-five years ago, very few could have dreamed where we were going to be today," he says. "I've been part of an evolution. Semiconductor and microprocessor advancements mean that the computing power it once took to launch spacecraft is now being brought into our living rooms in gaming systems."

"Whether you're working with semiconductor materials, component packaging, or design—a few of the things I've worked on in my career—each unique piece helped complete the puzzle for where we are today," Karl says. "Materials engineering is the discipline that brings a lot of things together. It gives you a broader view of the possibilities and pitfalls. It forces you to be very interdisciplinary in your thinking."

Karl's success as a semiconductor engineer drew on a breadth of knowledge. "I needed to know a little bit about chemistry to understand why materials react the way they do. I also needed to know about optics, material mechanics and structure, electromechanical properties, and more. The beauty, but also the challenge, of materials engineering is that it has few boundaries."

Recalling his Purdue days, Karl says, "We had prep labs, where you hand-molded and hand-polished samples. We had open casting urns heating stuff up. In some ways it seemed Medieval. I remember thinking, 'If I do the wrong thing, I'll burn my foot off.' Metallurgy at that point was very hands-on."

His classes weren't a snap, he admits. "I was an okay student. But I spent a fair amount of time doing the extra things to figure out what was going on in some of my classes. It worked out well."

Still in Vermont, today Karl manages government programs for IBM Microelectronics in the Systems and Technology Group. He works with the National Security Agency, Department of Defense, and other agencies to define and procure semiconductor-based products and services for the U.S. government.

While he's nested-in for the long haul in Vermont, Karl frequently hits the skyways, most often to visit Purdue. He's been on the Materials Science Engineering Advisory Board, was named a 1997 Outstanding Materials Engineering Alumnus, and comes to campus to recruit for IBM.

He's also been active in the Purdue Alumni Association, launching a Vermont chapter, holding national posts, and currently serving as its board president.

This year, he has yet another reason to head for Boilermaker country: his only child, Christina, is a first-year student in Purdue's Engineering Honors Program.

"If I'm not at work, I'm flying to Purdue," he says. To relax, he crawls into his "engineer's cocoon"—to hike alone or garden.

-Kathy Mayer