Issue Date: December 3, 2012
Materials Science Builds On Flexibility
Materials science, born of a mash-up of the physical sciences and engineering, is an interdisciplinary field anchored at one end in atomic-level fundamentals of how matter behaves and at the other in the hands-on problem solving that goes into designing a next-generation cell phone, solar cell, or airplane. Materials scientists might be trained in dedicated materials departments or in a related specialty such as physics, chemistry, or chemical engineering; they go on to work in academia, industry, or government labs. They all aim to understand, design, and manipulate stuff, and this broad but pragmatic focus could lend the field a certain adaptability and staying power.
As Tresa M. Pollock, chair of the materials department at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), says, “Everything is made of something, meaning that materials naturally span all the industries, everything from automotive to aerospace to electronics to energy—almost every organization on some level needs knowledge of the materials they’re working with.” Simply put, as long as there is a demand for new stuff, there will be jobs for materials scientists.
The numbers bear this out: The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that the materials science field will grow by just over 10%—around 900 jobs—between 2010 and 2020, compared with 4% growth in chemistry jobs. But delving deeper into the BLS numbers, it’s clear there’s a significant shift under way in the field, with consulting, research and development, and academic positions on the rise, while most jobs in manufacturing are expected to decline.
Despite these changes, and the weak economy, heads of materials science departments around the country report that their graduates have, by and large, continued to find employment in recent years. This points to another reason for the resiliency of materials science as a career field: Its interdisciplinary nature gives its graduate curricula—and graduates—the ability to adapt to changing times. “As we know, there are fewer jobs out there in general, but in materials science you can do so much,” says Mehmet Sarikaya, a professor at the University of Washington. “So we haven’t seen an impact to our graduates that one might expect.”
A readiness to evolve is reflected in the history of the field. Many of today’s materials science and engineering programs grew out of early-20th-century metallurgy or ceramics departments. In 1955, Northwestern University became the first university with a dedicated materials science department. The Materials Research Society, a professional organization that aims to advance interdisciplinary research, was founded in 1973. By the 1980s, many universities were following Northwestern’s lead. Justin Schwartz, head of the department of materials science and engineering at North Carolina State University, explains that “back in the ’80s, it was not uncommon to realize there are so many common, underlying scientific features to these different subdisciplines that capturing them under one heading of ‘materials science and engineering’ made scientific sense.”
Today, some of the hottest areas are gallium nitride and its role in solid-state lighting; oxide semiconductors, which hold promise for electronics; hybrid structures of organic and inorganic components, which are ultralightweight or have unusual mechanical, thermal, or energetic properties; additive manufacturing, in which products are made in layers by a printerlike machine; and energy-related materials such as organic photovoltaics and thermoelectrics, according to UCSB’s Pollock.
Dow Corning is looking to fill positions in specialties such as ceramics, solid-state chemistry, and metallurgy, according to Michele Stafford, a recruiter with the firm. In addition, she says, “we have a large need for materials scientists who have a focus on doing device development. Not only would they synthesize the materials, but they would look at how those materials fit into electronic devices.”
The competition among companies for scientists with the right backgrounds—whether they’re old hands or newly minted Ph.D.s—is quite stiff, says Dow Corning’s recruiting manager for North America, Jason Saavedra. In response, many firms partner with universities and offer internships to cultivate relationships with students doing research in desired areas, he says.
As for the future, one promising area was sparked by a development seemingly far removed from the materials realm: biologists’ rapidly increasing understanding of genes and their products. In the past decade or so, biological molecules have crept into materials engineers’ arsenals, where their use is being explored for medical and other applications, says the University of Washington’s Sarikaya. He heads the Genetically Engineered Materials Science & Engineering Center (GEMSEC), a seven-year-old initiative funded by the National Science Foundation’s Materials Research Science & Engineering Centers (MRSEC) program to explore how peptides and proteins can be engineered to perform new functions. For example, peptides might be coupled with gold nanoparticles to serve as cancer-detecting probes.
“We realized during the 1990s that Mother Nature makes complex materials that are also functional, hierarchical, self-assembled,” Sarikaya says. “Everything that materials scientists and chemists desire to do in the laboratory is being done by biology.” Bringing biology under the materials science and engineering umbrella hasn’t been easy, given the traditional separation between the physical and biological sciences, he acknowledges. But Sarikaya says GEMSEC is making headway in that respect, and he credits the MRSEC program with fostering basic, interdisciplinary research that might otherwise be difficult to fund.
If materials science’s interdisciplinary inclusiveness lends it an inherent ability to adapt to scientific and economic shifts, does it also make the field more amenable to demographic diversity? Timothy M. Swager is betting so.
Swager, a professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is a chemist. But when he got the idea to launch an annual workshop aimed at increasing the skills of diverse graduate students and postdocs, making them more likely to find, and thrive in, faculty positions, he decided to focus the workshop on materials science.
“When I go to a materials meeting, there aren’t just chemists there—there are materials scientists and chemical engineers, and we understand each other. We all have different talents, and we appreciate each others’ research, so it’s an inherently diverse group,” Swager explains. “I always thought that if you’re going to try to do diversity, the materials area might very well be a good place to really hunker down and show what you can do if you put your mind to it.”
Now in its sixth year, the two-day workshop emphasizes networking and presentation skills as well as personal interaction with mentors who are experts in various subfields. The idea is that many participants “come from places where maybe they’re not getting exposure to the top research ideas,” Swager says. “And so they need some education about what it’s like to be playing at the highest levels.”
And what does it take to play at the highest levels in materials science? In addition to the networking, presentation, and job-hunting skills emphasized in workshops like Swager’s, many who spoke to C&EN cited openness to learning about new areas—and to taking on new challenges—as essential to success in this dynamic field. NC State’s Schwartz advises: “Be open-minded, don’t lock yourself into one area, and make sure you really understand the fundamentals deeply. The fundamentals don’t change, and they tend to be what guide you as new problems come up.”
Shawna Williams is a freelance journalist in Baltimore.
- Chemical & Engineering News
- ISSN 0009-2347
- Copyright © American Chemical Society