In 1999 the European Union issued a ban on lead-based solder in electronics because traditional solder was polluting landfills. Yet it was no simple task to find another substance with the right properties: a melting temperature higher than the heat of a functioning computer but lower than the melting point of plastic.
As a world expert on solders, Carol Handwerker ‘77, SM ‘78, ScD ‘83, was called in to solve the problem. She collaborated with the International Electronics Manufacturing Initiative (iNEMI), a consortium of microelectronics companies, to develop a new lead-free solder for use in computers and cell phones.
This success was one of many. Handwerker, who earned three degrees in materials science and engineering at MIT, had wanted to be a scientist from the age of nine. However, as a Wellesley College undergraduate, she mistook her lack of math background for lack of aptitude. Handwerker majored in art history because, she says, she “liked to look at things carefully.” After graduation, she worked as a secretary for a small company that solved air and water pollution problems. There she discovered her talent for engineering when she began solving problems for technology companies in her second day on the job.
Handwerker was determined to continue her education at MIT. She got a job at the MIT computer center as an analyst trainee and began taking classes as a nondegree student. Her time at MIT was happy, she says: “I finally felt like I’d come home. I felt there was a community who thought in the same nonlinear, wild and crazy ways that I did.”
At MIT, she also met and married John Blendell, SM ‘76, ScD ‘79, and the couple’s oldest daughter was born while Handwerker was a postdoctoral student. In 1983, Handwerker and Blendell left the Institute to work as scientists at the National Bureau of Standards, now the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). She ultimately held the post of metallurgy division chief. After more than 20 years at NIST, the pair moved again and now holds professorships in materials engineering at Purdue University. Handwerker’s research group focuses on next-generation electronics and printed electronics.
Now, with two daughters in college, she enjoys performing with three Middle Eastern dance troupes.