Research and Corporate Fellow Charlene Smith: Lively exchange on tough problems “qualifies as a good day at work”

Research and Corporate Fellow Charlene Smith: Lively exchange on tough problems “qualifies as a good day at work”

During the first hour of her introduction to Corning, Charlene Smith knew she had walked into someplace special.

It was 1990 – it also happened to be St. Patrick’s Day – and Charlene, a newly minted Ph.D. fresh from a post-doctoral assignment at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Pittsburgh, had driven to Corning, N.Y. for a job interview. She was sitting in the Sullivan Park office of George Beall, one of Corning’s most venerable and prolific inventors.

“He was taking samples off his shelf of materials he and his teams had invented, and explaining to me what they were,” she said. “He’s a geologist, and here he was, asking me what I thought about them as a chemist. He’s such a gracious, wonderful person, and I was flabbergasted at how cool everything was.”

Other people she met that day – including Jim Dickinson and Nick Borelli, who would become lifelong friends – confirmed her impression that Corning’s breadth of materials science expertise could launch her into a fascinating research career with profound implications in various industries.

“It was amazing to me that the CorningWare® that was in my parents’ kitchen, the catalytic converter substrate in my car, optical fiber – all these things that were already part of my life had come from one company,” she said.

“Had I gone to work for an oil company or a drug company, I would have been working with other chemists exactly like me. But on that day, I saw how chemists, geologists, optical physicists, material scientists, manufacturing engineers, and so many others found a way to work together to invent things.

“I began to realize I might be able to invent something myself, and I could learn so many new things along the way. I left thinking, ‘Well, even if I don’t get the job, I had an absolutely amazing experience.”

She did, of course, get the job.

And it didn’t take long for her to begin making her mark on the research community that had captivated her from the very start.

Expanding on the chemistry knowledge she had built as an undergrad at Rutgers University and a doctoral student at Colorado State, Charlene spent her first few years working on glass-polymer hybrids. And in 1996, she led a research team beginning a decade-long research effort on high-purity fused silica – an effort that would solidify Corning’s place in the optical materials industry.

“My entry into HPFS® was a great introduction into glass, glass structure, optical properties, measurements, and modeling – and since it was a commercial product, I was able to also get experience with manufacturing and customers,” she recalled. “Working on that material was a formative experience. It taught me all kinds of technical things, and also how to do industrial research.”

Corning recognized Charlene’s scientific leadership in 2002 by presenting her with the prestigious Stookey Award for Exploratory Research. The honor recognizes innovators whose exploratory work leads to a significant scientific breakthrough, increasing fundamental knowledge in a technical field. Charlene’s work dramatically increased Corning’s understanding of HPFS® in optical materials, helping support the revolutionary ways that semiconductor manufacturers are putting smaller, more powerful transistors on chips.

The work she and her colleagues did on HPFS – largely focused on laser damage for lithography applications – remains one of her most fulfilling experiences to date. Encouraged by senior scientific leaders like Nick Borelli, she said, “we approached the problem very technically, and were able to let the fundamentals guide the work, from understanding the phenomena, to inventing new materials, all the way through manufacturing,” she said. “And we were able to contribute significantly to Corning’s business, as well as to the industry. That’s pretty cool.”

Charlene has proven her versatility as an inventor and scientific leader in a wide variety of other projects as well. She contributed to the research and development of new optical fibers with unprecedented length and low attenuation, all stemming from her work with photonic band-gap fiber. And portable electronics manufacturers are using remarkable materials she co-invented, from sleek glass-ceramics to tough new versions of chemically strengthened glass.

Glass ceramics, she noted, is an especially fascinating research area for innovators.

“Corning is at the center of glass ceramic invention,” she said. “Learning and working with giants in the area – specifically George Beall and Linda Pinckney, along with Steve Tietje – has been an incredible experience.”

“Our current glass-ceramics working group,” she added, “is a mix of young, old, experienced, and fairly new. We all come from different backgrounds, but we manage to communicate; I think our collaborations are richer because of our different technical viewpoints. We’re finding new microstructuresand phase assemblages, figuring out mechanisms of how the materials work, optimizing for properties. And all of that qualifies as a good day at work.”

“Corning is at the center of glass ceramic invention. Learning and working with giants in the area has been an incredible experience.”

In recent years, Charlene has earned two of the highest accolades afforded to researchers at Corning.

In 2016, she was named a Research Fellow, putting her at the top rank of the company’s technical ladder in recognition of her significant impact on Corning’s business and the industries it serves. She was the third woman to reach this distinction.

And in 2020, she was the first woman to be named a Corporate Fellow – a rare executive appointment signifying truly exceptional career achievements and living of Corning’s Values.

She takes a self-effacing approach to her groundbreaking role, and credits many of her younger colleagues with elevated the way women are gaining equal footing in research settings.

“It’s clear to me that many or most of my younger co-workers are part of a very inclusive generation,” she said.

“That goes a long way for everyone just working together as equals, no matter what their gender or difference in backgrounds. It feels like we may be at a turning point, thanks to them. And that gives me great hope.”

Away from the lab, Charlene favors hobbies that can immerse her in other worlds – whether it’s reading , gardening or taking long bike rides. She loves to bike through the lush green scenery around Keuka Lake, and recently rode through Death Valley National Park.

Such times can be restorative and refreshing and can also help her come back to research with a renewed focus.

“I can take a break from work and clear the cobwebs out, or I can use time I spend outside daydreaming and thinking about a technical problem,” she said. “If you let your mind wander, you can ruminate on a problem and be open to fresh ways of doing things.”

And every St. Patrick’s Day, she remembers the thrill of her 1990 job interview, often wishing “happy anniversary” to the friends she made that day.

“I’ll never forget it. It was such a clear example of how you’ve got to work with other people who can help fill in the blanks. Fortunately, I’m able to do that every day at Corning.”