Just hearing about all that research was really exciting for me.
A lot of cutting-edge research projects really need an interdisciplinary approach, and today I take on projects where I draw a little bit from chemistry, a little from materials science, and apply that to mechanical engineering problems. My group works on making materials stronger using nanotechnology, and a lot of our work is designing nanoparticles that range in size from 20 atoms to tens of thousands.
Many of the applications we’re working toward are related to sustainability — things like materials for a zero-emission hydrogen economy and stronger lightweight aluminum alloys that can be used in planes and cars, which could reduce weight and fuel consumption and have a huge impact on carbon emissions. But for me, what I really love is the sense of wonder I get when I look at these physics problems. When I look at an electron microscope image, I’m still astonished that we can visualize atoms. One of our new frontiers is looking at motion inside of materials — the idea that you can have this hard, solid material that you can look inside of, and see things as small as micro-scale objects that are moving under stress or when you apply temperature. It’s just amazing, and I don’t think that sense of wonder is ever going to leave me.
I also love teaching and mentoring, and working with my graduate students and undergrads. I’d love to do everything — policy, fundamental work, applied work — but I just can’t. By mentoring students I can seed these ideas in the people I work with, and they can go out and do all these amazing things. They’re so enthusiastic and capable, and I feel a great responsibility to give them the tools they need.
Being an engineer means being a bit of a dreamer; someone who can imagine a better world, then work on building that. I tell students that the ability to approach a problem and figure out how to solve it — regardless of what field it involves — is the most important skill they can have. Don’t be too worried about what job you get in the end; there are going to be jobs that don’t even exist yet, and you can easily switch between different jobs at the end of your education. Be open to a lot of different things.