What is Materials Science?

Why materials science is a mystery to most people and why it’s important

From Unsplash

When I (used to) get a haircut or take an Uber, the #1 question I got is the same one everyone else gets: “What do you do?” If I’m feeling really adventurous, I might say “I’m a graduate student studying materials science.” I’m never feeling really adventurous. It is extremely unlikely that the person I’m talking to will have heard of materials science as a field of study, even though the name is pretty descriptive and self-explanatory. It’s much easier to say “physics” or “chemistry.” Even if my conversation partner isn’t exactly sure what a physics graduate student does, they at least have an impression about what physics is. Almost no one outside of science has heard of materials science (although there are probably more people working in materials science than any field other than biology). I have a few ideas about why that is, how to change it, and why it’s important to do so.

The materials science PR problem

  1. The first rule of materials science club is that you don’t talk about materials science club. Materials scientists do not self-promote to the same degree that physicists do. If you have an interest in pop science, you recognize Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking, but you’ve never heard of John Bardeen or Mildred Dresselhaus.
  2. Almost everyone takes chemistry in high school and many people take physics, or at least know that some of their peers are in a class studying how balls roll down hills. I’ve never heard of a high school offering a materials science course.
  3. Many universities don’t have a dedicated materials science department and many of those that do were, until recently, called “metallurgy.” It’s also typical to have materials science departments as subsidiaries of larger, better known departments like physics or mechanical engineering. Few majors require materials science coursework, whereas all STEM majors take introductory physics and chemistry.
  4. Even materials scientists don’t know what materials science is. Few professors have actual degrees in “materials science” (see #3 above) — they have a physics, chemistry, or engineering background — and their definition of materials science is completely dependent on their own research interests.
  5. Materials science is inescapably interdisciplinary. It can involve elements of physics, chemistry, biology, and engineering. When everyone knows the fundamental ingredients, it might seem like overkill to define this new thing combining them together.

The interdisciplinary science

The only math I’m going to introduce in this post is this equation I just made up:

materials science = a*physics + b*chemistry + c*biology + d*engineering, (1)

So a, b, c, and d, are just percentages that add up to 100%. All this says is that, depending on what sort of materials science you do, your work is a sprinkling of physics, a dash of chemistry, possibly a dose of biology, with some engineering sauce on top. My PhD work is probably something like: a=70%, b=20%, d=10%, because I mostly care about physics, but I need to do enough chemistry to understand (at a basic level) how someone might make the things I’m studying, and I inject a little engineering because I hope that someday my work might help make new devices.

Someone designing new batteries might be: a=10%, b=50%, d=40%, and someone working on synthetic, biocompatible heart valves could be a=10%, b=10%, c=50%, d=30%. These are all totally made up estimates to give the impression that materials science can really be any combination of these ingredients that you like.

Increasingly, there are very few scientists who would say they work on 100% physics or 100% biology, etc. It’s more common to do some interesting combination of things, because that’s where there are new things to discover. Fields like biophysics, biochemistry, neuroscience, and nanotechnology are booming, because you synthesize knowledge from many different fields to make progress.

Materials science is then, in many ways, ahead of the curve. Departments are on the smaller side and relatively young, but this interdisciplinary approach is baked in at the start. It is encouraged to be interested in many different topics and ask seemingly simple questions like, “What would happen if I stuck thing A that I learned about in organic chemistry to thing B that I learned about in mechanical engineering?” These sorts of questions often lead to the best sorts of discoveries.

What is the best way to prepare to do this kind of interdisciplinary science? Just like when we try to define materials science, you’ll get as many answers as people you ask. One option is to study materials science from the beginning and get a head start on this way of thinking. Other options might be to focus on a more fundamental (physics), “central” (chemistry), or 21st century (biology) science. Build up a solid foundation in the area that appeals most to you. At the same time, practice communicating across disciplines. There are huge communication barriers between scientific communities, and I believe that there are incredible discoveries waiting for scientists who can bridge these gaps.

Getting in touch

If you liked this post or have any questions, feel free to reach out over email or connect with me on LinkedIn and Twitter.

You can find out more about my projects and publications on my website or just read a bit more about me.

Postdoc @MIT | Co-founder @AtomicAI | Previously NDSEG Fellow @UPenn and affiliate scientist @Berkeley Lab

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