Few places are left in industry where a scientist can pursue good science for its own sake. IBM is one of those places, and Robert D. Miller has made the most of it.
Miller, 68, is manager of advanced organic materials at the IBM Almaden Research Center in San Jose, Calif. An IBMer for 40 years, he has watched the evolution of microelectronics and other advanced technologies from one of the best seats in the house.
Miller came to IBM by way of Lafayette College, a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from Cornell University, and a postdoc at Union Carbide Research Institute. In 1969, when Miller joined IBM’s Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., organic chemists were rare, but the company was trying to change that. “IBM wanted to learn more about organic materials,” Miller recalls.
A few years into his tenure, IBM relocated chemistry to the West Coast. Miller moved to San Jose, and for a while, he continued to pursue his interests in photochemistry, strained molecules, theoretically interesting materials, and other small-molecule chemistry. But a colleague, Jim Economy, eventually convinced him that the future of chemistry at IBM was in polymers.
Miller embarked on research in lithography and soon developed a photoresist sensitizer/polymer that helped IBM shrink microchip wiring dimensions. Work in resists led him to polysilanes, radiation-sensitive materials with interesting spectral and physical properties. He collaborated with Robert West of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and Josef Michl of the University of Colorado. C. Grant Willson, a professor at the University of Texas, Austin, calls their results “some of the best work in the world in this area.”
Computer chips continued to shrink, and after a stint in nonlinear optical materials, Miller helped IBM’s semiconductor business again when it needed new dielectric materials to block cross talk between closely spaced circuit lines. He helped shepherd an IBM/Dow Chemical collaboration with academic partners that yielded porous SiLK, a low-dielectric-constant organic polymer marketed by Dow.
Miller was an early proponent of industrial-academic collaboration, calling publicly for such research as far back as 1982. “I saw the evolution of industrial chemistry away from basic research,” he says, “and academics becoming isolated from technological problems that really mattered to people.”
Since then, he observes, the two sides have moved closer. “Over the years, science has become more interdisciplinary, and no one person has all the answers,” Miller says.
A desire to work with others on things that matter has guided his research at IBM as well. Although Miller could pursue the fundamental science of his early days, he says he would miss “a huge opportunity for interdisciplinary interaction with really smart people.”
Indeed, Miller is still going strong, heading an “absolutely exciting” IBM initiative on nanomedicine—polymeric materials for medical applications. Miller considers himself fortunate to be working with top scientists on important issues such as health care, energy, food, and water. “There are lots of really cool and interesting problems,” he says. “Why would I not do that?”
Miller will present the award address before the Division of Polymeric Materials: Science & Engineering at the fall 2010 ACS national meeting in Boston.