By Katharine Webster
It never occurred to Allyson Toppi ’20, ’21 that she could work in robotics. She hadn’t joined Lego League in high school, and she did not take any robotics classes as a mechanical engineering
But a summer internship at Brooks Automation, a robotics and life sciences company in Chelmsford, Massachusetts, demystified the field. She worked on the robotics team, testing the tension of the metal bands that move the robots’ arms. By summer’s end, she had invented a tool that could test the band tension without partly dismantling the arms.
“I never thought I could be someone who built robots; it seemed really difficult and high tech,” she says. “But I wanted to challenge myself, and I thought that the internship would be a really good way to see if it was something I was interested in doing in the future.”
That internship the summer before her senior year led to a second summer internship, which turned into a flexible, part-time job while she pursued a master’s degree, encouraged by her Brooks supervisor, Director of Engineering Joe Hallisey. Toppi was able to take a robotics class as part of her accelerated master’s program, which she completed in one year with dual concentrations: mechanics and materials, and design and manufacturing.
Now, the former intern has a full-time job at Brooks in its semiconductor division, which makes precision robots, vacuum and automation systems that are used worldwide in the manufacturing of silicon chips. In June 2021, Toppi entered the company’s rotational program for new engineers. With the help of a company mentor, she will select three different teams to work with over 18 months before finding a permanent placement.
Toppi, who is from Rowley, Massachusetts, says her experiences at UMass Lowell paved the way for her success. But her interest in engineering started in high school, when her mom suggested she take a Women in Engineering class as a ninth-grade elective.
“I convinced a friend to take it, and I never looked back,” she says. “Engineering combines the analytical math side that I have always enjoyed … with a little bit of creativity. It’s creative problem-solving.”
Throughout high school, she took every elective in engineering that she could, even though she was the only girl in those classes after freshman year. A woman engineer turned high school math teacher served as an important role model. She told Toppi she should go to UMass Lowell — and remains a friend and mentor. “I never questioned that women could be engineers because here was one in front of me, and she was so smart, strong and capable. I looked up to her and thought, ‘This is what an engineer is,’” Toppi says.
At UMass Lowell, Toppi majored in mechanical engineering because her high school teachers told her it was versatile. The summer after her sophomore year, she got her first professional internship at Axcelis Technologies in Beverly, Massachusetts. Axcelis makes ion implanters, a machine used to manufacture semiconductors. She worked with a physicist, testing materials for use in the precision machines.
The following summer, at Brooks Automation, she was treated like a professional engineer from the start, she says. Hallisey, her supervisor, gave her the tension testing project and let her run with it.
“I felt the whole time like everyone on the team really trusted what I was doing, and if I made a decision on the project, they’d let me go with it,” she says.
At the end of the summer, when she presented her solution — a tension-testing probe that could be inserted into a hole beneath each robot’s serial number plate — lots of people told her how valuable the tool would be in their work. The following summer, she worked on testing protocols for different robot arms, and Brooks Automation’s president, Steve Schwartz, told her how much he appreciated her hard work. “I really felt like I was making an impact on the company,” she says.
Now, she is excited to be starting at Brooks full time in the rotational program. She is also happy to note that the company has quite a few women engineers on staff. “That helps me feel more comfortable and more confident,” she says. “It’s nice to have those role models.”
Toppi is already informally mentoring the next generation of up-and-coming women engineers herself, including Hallisey’s daughter and her friends’ younger sisters. Maybe someday she will even return to the university to get her Ph.D. or to teach, she says. “It would be great to be that role model,” she says.
“I always thought it was cool when women here were my professors.”