What is a materials scientist?

Materials scientists and engineers work with the materials involved in manufacturing all products used in our society. These materials range from well-known metals that have been around for ages such as iron, tin, copper, and steel to many recently developed materials like polymers, ceramics, superconductors, and high-performance alloys. Materials scientists study how the properties of simple and complex materials can be controlled and modified by chemistry changes as well as by variations in processing. They also find ways to manufacture useful parts from these materials while maintaining the desired properties.

Materials science and engineering is important to our society. Many technological advances have happened because new materials were invented and/or better ways were found to manufacture existing materials. Automobiles are being manufactured to be lighter and more fuel-efficient and with more of their parts easily recyclable. Improvements in biomedical alloys have made implants that last longer, and they are more easily accepted by the body. The tiles on the space shuttle were specially designed to protect the shuttle during reentry and to be strong enough to withstand the forces of takeoffs and landings. New advances in plastics have made these materials very versatile and more directly recyclable.

What makes a good materials scientist?

A good materials scientist is curious about why materials perform the way they do and what can be done to make them better. Experiments play a big part in materials research so a good scientist should be able to run experiments accurately using many different types of equipment and to keep good, detailed records. Since materials science is a mix of chemistry and physics, interest in these subjects is a plus. Good communication skills are always necessary, and computer skills are becoming increasingly important.

What is life as a materials scientist like?

Life as a materials scientist can be varied. Some scientists work in laboratories using sophisticated equipment to fully analyze, test, and develop new materials. Some scientists work mainly with small quantities of materials using microscopes and small testing equipment, while others may work with full factory setups making industrial products. Still other scientists may work in the field or in a manufacturing plant to solve problems —there only the experiments necessary to solve the problem are performed, and decisions are made quickly.

How do I become a materials scientist?

Materials science is a broad field that can accommodate many interests. To become a material scientist, you should take as much math and science in high school as possible. Be sure to study chemistry, physics, and math, such as trigonometry, algebra, and calculus. In college your undergraduate education should include chemistry, physics, calculus, and classes in the materials science field including microscopy, x-ray diffraction, heat, fluid and mass transport, and if desired, engineering. Courses in areas of specialization can be taken in graduate school to obtain M.S. and Ph.D. degrees.

What/where are the jobs?

Many types of organizations employ materials scientists and engineers. Materials-producing industries such as metals, glass, ceramics, and plastics, and manufacturing industries like automotive, aircraft, electronic, and medical supplies are sources of employment. These can be large or small companies and are located all over the country. Universities and national laboratories are also good sources of employment. Since materials science is such a broad and necessary field, there is a great deal of diversity and options for employment.