The subtle allure of materials science and engineering

You know what’s funny?

If you were to have asked me during my senior year of high school what Materials Science and Engineering (MSE) was, I wouldn’t have the slightest clue how to answer. Now, less than five years later, I’m sitting here writing this as a first-year MSE PhD student, and were I to be asked that question now, I could go on for hours about how it is one of the coolest, most interdisciplinary fields anyone could get themselves into.

MSE is often an overlooked discipline due to it not being a “major” (read: Mechanical, Chemical, Electrical) engineering discipline. What most people don’t realize, however, is that practically everything you do and take advantage of on a day-to-day basis, you have a materials engineer to thank for. That iPhone of yours you stare at for over an hour a day? It’s a materials masterpiece.

Consider how many times you’ve accidentally dropped your phone (whether it be on the ground or on your face while you’re laying in bed) without the screen cracking. You have the engineers at Corning to thank for that. Corning’s Gorilla Glass is no ordinary day-to-day window glass; it’s a special aluminosilicate glass that has undergone a process called ion exchange. Basically, what happens is you dip a sodium-containing glass into a hot bath of potassium ions, where a literal exchange happens between the sodium and the potassium atoms. Since potassium is ever so slightly larger than sodium, the glass is put under compression. If anyone wants to break this glass, they must first overcome the genius behind its reinforcement. You can read more about how gorilla glass is made [here].

gorillaglass

A sample of corning’s Gorilla Glass put under a three-point bending test.

The materials genius behind the iPhone isn’t limited to just its screen. The production of the hardware that makes your phone so fast was also a materials problem—getting those two billion transistors to fit on a chip inside your iPhone took literal decades of work.

Problems like these are what brought me to take on MSE as my undergraduate major, but the interdisciplinary nature of the field is what convinced me to stay.

My “Intro to MSE” professor (and my eventual undergraduate research advisor), Dr. Laura Fabris, would often tell us about her research. She worked on the production of gold nanoparticles (?!) that could be used for disease/biological marker detection. Her research fascinated me, and was what originally got me interested in the region where materials and biology overlap. The more that I read about what was being done, the more I longed to be a part of it. These desires have brought me to the Johns Hopkins University for my graduate studies, and ultimately the Institute for NanoBioTechnology so that I could gain further insight and training on what is being done at the forefront of my field.

goldnanorods

Transmission Electron Micrograph of Gold Nanorods in solution.

Now that I’m here at Hopkins, I’ve found myself working on the synthesis and self-assembly of polymeric nanoparticles used for biomedical applications. Did you know that most drugs on the market that are used for treatment of diseases such as cancer are hydrophobic? Now, consider the fact that your body is about 60% water… This makes delivering drugs to certain areas of your body a huge problem, and has posed a challenge for hundreds of scientists and engineers. Using the polymeric nanoparticles my lab synthesizes, we can store these drugs in a safe “vehicle” so that they may safely arrive wherever they are needed. Cool, huh?

With that, I’d like to leave you with the video from Corning that truly was the tipping point to my choosing MSE. Although it no longer lines up with the direction I’m taking myself, it shows how the future lies in the hands of engineers who believe in the power of materials, and I hope I have inspired you to consider the impact materials make in both our everyday lives and the (not-so-distant) future.

Lazaro Pacheco is a first year PhD student in the Materials Science and Engineering department at the Johns Hopkins University. He is a member of the Herrera Lab, and he is currently working on measuring the polydispersity of polymer chains that are ‘grafted from’ a central polymeric backbone.

Media inquires about INBT should be directed to Mary Spiro at mspiro@jhu.edu.

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