Category: Features

Becky Ong: Color-Changing Potions and Magical Microbes

Miscanthus, otherwise known as Switchgrass, a perennial grass, can be used for making biofuels. “But plant materials are very complex,” says Dr. Rebecca Ong. “We’ve only scratched the surface of what is in there. We have much more to learn.”

Dr. Becky Ong shares her knowledge on Husky Bites, a free, interactive webinar this Monday, June 1 at 6 pm. Learn something new in just 20 minutes, with time after for Q&A! Get the full scoop and register at mtu.edu/huskybites.

Fungus Breath? It’s a good thing!

Enter the magical world of herbology and potions with Dr. Becky Ong. Learn how to make your own color-changing potion and use it to find the best conditions to generate and collect fungus breath. Discover the science behind the magic, what makes plants and microbes so cool. 

Dr. Becky Ong in her lab at Michigan Technological University. She is both a biologist and a chemical engineer.

Dr. Ong, an assistant professor of chemical engineering, runs the Biofuels & Bio-based Products Lab at Michigan Tech, where she and her team of student researchers put plants to good use.

“As engineers we aren’t just learning about the world, but we’re applying our knowledge of the world to make it a better place,” she says. “That is what I love. As a chemical engineer, I get to merge chemistry, biology, physics, and math to help solve such crazy huge problems as: how we’re going to have enough energy and food for everyone in the future; how we’re going to deal with all this waste that we’re creating; how to keep our environment clean, beautiful and safe for ourselves and the creatures who share our world.” 

For this session of Husky Bites, you’re going to want to gather some common household supplies. No time for supplies? Just watch it happen in Dr. Ong’s kitchen live via Zoom. Learn the details at mtu.edu/huskybites

Dr. Ong, a born Yooper,  is a Michigan Tech alumna. She graduated in 2005 with two degrees, one in Biological Sciences, and the other in Chemical Engineering. She went on to Michigan State University to earn a PhD in Chemical Engineering in 2011. Growing up, she was one of the youngest garden club enthusiasts in northern Michigan, a science-loving kid who accompanied her grandparents to club events like “growing great gardens” or “tulip time.” When she wasn’t tending the family garden, she was “mucking about in nature” learning from parents who had both trained as foresters.

“We conduct many small-scale experiments in the lab—on a variety of plant materials grown under different environmental conditions. We want to determine just how those conditions affect the production of biofuels.”

Q: When did you first get into engineering? What sparked your interest?

I first became interested in engineering in high school when I learned it was a way to combine math and science to solve problems. I loved math and science and thought that sounded brilliant. However, I didn’t understand at the time what that really meant. I thought “problems” meant the types of problems you solve in math class. Since then I’ve learned these problems are major issues that are faced by all of humanity, such as: How do we enable widespread access to clean energy? How do we produce sufficient amounts of safe vaccines and medicine, particularly in a crisis? How do we process food products, while maintaining safety and nutritional quality? As a chemical engineer I am able to combine my love of biology, chemistry, physics, and math to create novel solutions to society’s problems. One thing I love about MTU is that the university gives students tons of hands-on opportunities to solve real problems, not just problems out of a textbook (though we still do a fair number of those!). These are the types of problems our students will be solving when they go on to their future careers.

Q: Tell us about yourself. What do you like to do outside the lab?

I’m a born Yooper who grew up in the small-town northern Lower Peninsula of Michigan and came back to the UP for school.

I love the Copper Country and MTU students so much, I managed to persuade my husband to come back to Houghton 5 years ago. Now I live near campus with my husband, 4-year-old daughter, our Torbie cat and our curly-haired dog.

We read science fiction and fantasy stories; play board games; kayak on the canals and lakes while watching for signs of wildlife; make new things out of yarn, fabric, wood, and plastic (not all at the same time)—and practice herbology (plants and plant lore) and potions in the garden and kitchen. 

Huskies in the Biofuels & Bio-based Products Lab at Michigan Tech

Biofuels and Dry Spells: Switchgrass Changes During a Drought
Sustainable Foam: Coming Soon to a Cushion Near You

Want to know more about Husky Bites? 

Read about it here.

Husky Bites is BYOC: Bring Your Own Curiosity to this Family-Friendly Free Webinar, Mondays this Summer at 6 pm EST.


Biofuels and Dry Spells: Switchgrass Changes During a Drought

High yields. A deep root system that prevents soil erosion and allows for minimal irrigation. The ability to pull large amounts of carbon out of the air and sequester it in the soil. Beneficial effects on wildlife, pollination, and water quality. Perennial grasses, such as switchgrass and elephant grass, are wonderful in many ways and especially promising biofuel feedstocks. But that promise, a team of researchers discovered, may evaporate during a drought.

“The characteristics of any living organism are linked to their genetics and the environment they experience during growth,” says Rebecca Ong, an assistant professor of chemical engineering at Michigan Technological University. “Bioenergy production is no different. It’s a chain where every link, including the feedstock characteristics, influences the final product—the fuel.”

Ong is both a chemical engineer and a biologist. She holds a unique perspective on how the bioenergy system fits together, which comes in handy, especially now, in light of a recent puzzling discovery.

“Plants have lower biomass yields during a drought. You understand this when you don’t need to mow your lawn after a dry spell,” she explains. “The same is true with switchgrass. Besides the expected effect on crop yields, we were completely unable to produce fuel from switchgrass—using one of our standard biofuel microbes—grown during a major drought year.”

“At the lab scale this is an interesting result. But at the industrial scale, this could potentially be devastating to a biorefinery,” she says.

Ong, her research team, and colleagues within the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC), a cross-disciplinary research center led by the University of Wisconsin–Madison, are making efforts to understand, pulling in researchers from across the production chain to study the problem. 

Ong is the only Michigan Tech faculty member in the GLBRC. “Our team was able to identify some of the compounds formed in the plant in response to drought stress, contributing to the inhibition. But plant materials are very complex. We’ve only scratched the surface of what is in there. We have much more to learn.”

The first step, she says, is to understand what inhibits fuel production. “Once we know that, we can engineer solutions: new, tailor-made plants with improved characteristics, as well as modifications to processing, such as the use of different microbes, to overcome these issues.”

Ong points out that in the U.S., gasoline is largely supplemented with E10 ethanol, derived from sugars in corn grain. However renewable fuels can be produced from any source of sugars—including perennial grasses, which if planted on less productive land do not conflict with food production.

“Ultimately, if we are to replace fossil energy in the long term, we need a broad alternative energy portfolio,” says Ong. “We need industry to succeed. We are engaging in highly collaborative research to ensure that happens.”


Sustainable Foam: Coming Soon to a Cushion Near You

Chemical engineering major Lauren Spahn presented her research at the Michigan Tech Undergraduate Research Symposium last spring. Her lignin project was supported by Portage Health Foundation, the DeVlieg Foundation, and Michigan Tech’s Pavlis Honors College.

Most polyurethane foam, found in cushions, couches, mattress, insulation, shoes, and more, is made from petroleum. Soon, with help from undergraduate researcher and chemical engineering major Lauren Spahn, it will also be environmentally-friendly, sustainable, and made from renewable biomass.

Spahn works in the Biofuels & Bio-based Products Laboratory at Michigan Technological University, where researchers put plants—and their lignin—to good use. The lab is directed by Dr. Rebecca Ong, an assistant professor of chemical engineering.

Q&A with Lauren Spahn

Q: Please tell us about the lab.

A: “Our goal in working with Dr. Ong is to develop sustainable industries using renewable lignocellulosic biomass⁠—the material derived from plant cell walls. There are five of us working on Dr. Ong’s team. We develop novel co-products from the side streams of biofuel production, and pulp and paper production. We’re trying to make good use of the leftover materials.

 

Lignocellulose, aka biomass, is the dry matter of plants. Energy crops like this Elephant Grass, are grown as a raw material for the production of biofuels.

Q: What kind of research are you doing?

A: My particular research project involves plant-based polyurethane foams. Unlike conventional poly foams, bio-based foams are generated from lignin, a renewable material. Lignin is like a glue that holds wood fibers together. It has the potential to replace petroleum-derived polymers in many applications. In the lab, we purify the lignin from something called “black liquor”⁠. It’s not what sounds like. Black liquor is a by-product from the kraft process when pulpwood is made into paper. Lignin is collected by forcing dissolved lignin to precipitate or fall out of the solution (this is the opposite of the process of dissolving, which brings a solid into solution). By adjusting the functional properties of lignin during the precipitation process, we hope to be able to tailor the characteristics of resulting foams. It’s called functionalization.

Typically in the lab process, functionalization occurs on lignin that has already been purified. What we hope to do is integrate functionalization into the purification process, to reduce energy and raw material inputs, and improve the economics and sustainability of the process, too.

Purified lignin, used to make bio-foam. The resulting foam will likely be light or dark brown in color because of the color of the lignin. It would probably be used in applications where color does not matter (such as the interior of cushions/equipment).

Q: How did you get started in undergraduate research?

A: I came to Michigan Tech knowing I wanted to get involved in research. As a first-year student, I was accepted into the Undergraduate Research Internship Program (URSIP), through the Pavlis Honors College here at Tech. Through this program I received funding, mentorship, and guidance as I looked to identify a research mentor. 

Q: How did you find Dr. Ong, or how did she find you?

A: I wanted to work with Dr. Ong because I found the work in her lab to be very interesting and relevant to the world we live in, in terms of sustainability. She was more than willing to welcome me into the lab and assist me in my research when I needed it. I am very thankful for all her help and guidance. 

Q: What is the most challenging and difficult part of the work and the experience?

A: Not everything always goes according to plan. Achieving the desired result often takes many iterations, adjustments, and even restructuring the experiment itself. After a while, it can even become discouraging.

Lignin is like a glue that holds wood fibers together, giving trees their shape and stability, and making them resistant to wind and pests. Pictured above, a biofuel plantation in Oregon.

Q: What do you do when you get discouraged? How do you persevere?

A: I start thinking about my goals. I enjoy my research—it’s fun! Once I remind myself why I like it, I am able to get back to work. 

Q: What do you enjoy most about research?

A: I enjoy being able to run experiments in the lab that directly lead to new designs, processes, or products in the world around me. It’s wonderful to have the opportunity to think up new product ideas, then go through the steps needed to implement them in the real world. 

Q: What are your career goals and plans?

A: I plan to go to graduate school for a PhD in chemical engineering, to work in R&D for industry. I am very passionate about research—I want to continue participating in research in my professional career.


Lignin at the nanoscale, imaged with transmission electron microscopy (TEM). Raisa Carmen Andeme Ela, a PhD candidate working in Dr. Ong’s lab, generated this image to examine the fundamental mechanisms driving lignin precipitation.

Q: Why did you choose engineering as your major, and why chemical engineering?

A: I chose chemical engineering because the field is so large. Chemical engineers can work in industry in numerous areas. I liked the wide variety of work that I could enter into as a career. 

Michigan Tech translates research into the new technologies, products, and jobs that move our economy forward.

Did you know?

  • Michigan Tech has more than 35 research centers and institutes
  • 20 percent of all Michigan Tech patent applications involve undergraduate students
  • Students in any engineering discipline are welcome to give research a try
  • Research expenditures at Michigan Tech—over $44 million-—have increased by 33% over the last decade, despite increased competition for research funding. 
  • Michigan Tech research leads to more invention disclosures—the first notification that an invention has been created—than any other research institution in Michigan.



Brad King: Space, Satellites and Students

Pictured: the Auris signal trace, soon to be explained by Dr. Lyon (Brad) King on Husky Bites.

Lyon (Brad) King shares his knowledge on Husky Bites, a free, interactive webinar this Monday, May 18 at 6 pm. Learn something new in just 20 minutes, with time after for Q&A! Get the full scoop and register at mtu.edu/huskybites.

Oculus deployed! In June 2019 Michigan Tech alumnus and Air Force Research Laboratory Space Systems Engineer Jesse Olson, left, celebrates with Aerospace Enterprise advisor Brad King. King’s son Jack was also on hand for the momentous occasion of the launch.

Turning dreams into reality is a powerful motivator for Lyon (Brad) King. He’s the Richard and Elizabeth Henes Professor of Space Systems in the Department of Mechanical Engineering-Engineering Mechanics, and leader of Michigan Tech Aerospace—a collection of research, development, and educational labs dedicated to advancing spacecraft technology.

King specializes in spacecraft propulsion — and the launching of student careers. He mentors a large team of graduate students in his research lab, the Ion Space Propulsion Lab, where teams develop next-generation plasma thrusters for spacecraft. Off campus, at the MTEC SmartZone, King is cofounder and CEO of the fast-growing company, Orbion Space Technology.

As the founder and faculty advisor of Michigan Tech’s Aerospace Enterprise, King empowers undergraduate students to design, build, and fly spacecraft, too. One of the team’s student-built satellites (Oculus) is now in orbit; their second small satellite (Stratus) is due to launch in March 2021, and a third (Auris) now in process.

“The desire to explore space is what drives me. Very early in my studies I realized that the biggest impediment to space exploration is propulsion. Space is just so big it’s hard to get anywhere. So I dedicated my professional life to developing new space propulsion technologies.”

Professor Lyon (Brad) King, Michigan Tech

King has served as the Enterprise advisor ever since a couple of students came to him with the idea to form a team nearly two decades ago. “My current role now is more that of an outside evaluator,” he says. “The team has taken on a life of its own.”

Like all Enterprise teams at Michigan Tech, Aerospace Enterprise is open to students in any major. “It’s important for students to learn how to work in an interdisciplinary group,” says King. “In the workplace, they will never be on a team where every member has the same expertise. To design, build, manage and operate a satellite requires mechanical, electrical, computer science, physics, materials, everything — it really crosses a lot of boundaries and prepares them for a career.”

Adds King: “Michigan Tech has a history and reputation for hands-on projects, particularly its Enterprise Program. Our students don’t just write papers and computer programs. They know how to turn wrenches and build things. That’s been deeply ingrained in the University culture for years.” 

Last, but not least: “Aerospace Enterprise has a leadership and management hierarchy that is self-sustaining,” says King. “Current leaders are constantly working to mentor their successors so we have continuity from year-to-year.” 

“Dr. King provides excellent mentoring and high-level direction, but does not give students all the answers. It’s up to the students to figure it out. We work in small teams, which forces us to take on more responsibility. We’re thrown off the deep end. It’s hard, but worth it.”

Sam Baxendale, spoken as a former student. He’s now an engineer at Orbion Space Technologies
The Aerospace Enterprise team at Michigan Tech enjoys some well-deserved downtime at McLain State Park on Lake Superior.

The New Space Era

Commercialization is driving aerospace expansion in Michigan and across the nation. “We were ahead of it,” says King. “We certainly were feeding it and played a part in causing it. MTU’s products — which are our graduates — are out there, making this happen.” Aerospace Enterprise alumni are engineers, managers, technology officers and research scientists in a diverse array of aerospace-related industries and institutions, from the U.S. Army, U.S. Air Force and NASA to SpaceX, both startups and major manufacturers. King himself has hired several of his former students at Orbion Space Technology.

“The desire to explore space is what drives me,” says Lyon (Brad) King, Henes Professor of Space Systems at Michigan Technological University

Q: When did you first get into engineering? What sparked your interest?

A: I have always been interested in building things — long before I knew that was called “engineering.” I don’t recall when I became fascinated with space but it was at a very early age. I have embarrassing photos of me dressed as an astronaut for halloween and I may still even have an adult-sized astronaut costume somewhere in my closet — not saying. The desire to explore space is what drives me. Very early in my studies I realized that the biggest impediment to space exploration is propulsion. Space is just so big it’s hard to get anywhere. So I dedicated my professional life to developing new space propulsion technologies. There is other life in our solar system. That is a declarative statement. It’s time that we find it. The moons of Jupiter and Saturn hold great promise and I’m determined to see proof in my lifetime.

Q: Can you tell us more about your growing up? Any hobbies?

A: I was born and raised just north of Houghton (yes, there actually is some habitable environment north of Houghton). I received my BS, MS, and PhD from the University of Michigan. I spent time traveling around the country working at NASA in Houston, NIST in Boulder, and realized that all of my personal hobbies and proclivities were centered around the geography and climate of northern Michigan. I returned in 2000 and began my career as a professor at MTU. I enjoy fishing, boating, hockey, and spent more than 15 years running my dogsled team all over the Keweenaw Peninsula.


Michigan Tech’s Three Student-Built Satellites

OCULUS-ASR, a microsatellite now in orbit, provides new info to the Air Force. “It is the first satellite mission dedicated to helping telescope observatories understand what they are imaging using a cooperative target. “It’s a very capable little vehicle. There’s a lot packed into it.”

Aerospace Enterprise rendering of Stratus, a miniaturized satellite developed by the team. It will be launched from the International Space Station in March 2021.

Not hard to see how CubeSats get their name. Stratus is a 3U spacecraft, which means it’s composed of three units. This photo was taken in fall 2019.

STRATUS, a miniaturized satellite, will image atmospheric clouds to reconcile climate models. It’s funded by NASA’s Undergraduate Student Instrument Program and the CubeSat Launch Initiative. STRATUS will be carried to the International Space Station inside the SpaceX Dragon cargo capsule by a Falcon 9 rocket. The Dragon will dock to the ISS where STRATUS will be unloaded by the crew. STRATUS will then be placed in the Kibo Module’s airlock, where the Japanese Experiment Module Remote Manipulator System robotic arm will move the satellite into the correct position and deploy it into space. All this on March 21. Stay tuned!

Aerospace Enterprise rendering of its newest microsatellite, Auris, now in the works.

AURIS, a microsatellite, is designed to monitor and attribute telecommunications signals in a congested space environment. Funding comes from the Air Force Research Lab (AFRL)’s University Nanosatellite Program.

Huskies in Space

Michigan Tech’s Aerospace Enterprise team designed their own logo.

Learn more about the team and its missions on Instagram and Facebook.

Find out how to join.

Read more about Aerospace Enterprise in Michigan Tech News:

And Then There Were Two: MTU’s Next Student Satellite Set to Launch in 2021

Enterprise at MTU Launches Spacecraft—and Careers

Countdown. Ignition. Liftoff. Huskies in Space!

Mission(s) AccomplishedMichigan Tech’s Pipeline to Space

Winning Satellite to be Launched into Orbit


My Mother’s Hands

Okay, so I have my mother’s hands. May she rest in peace. For her fiftieth birthday, many years ago, us four daughters decided to get her a nice piece of jewelry. We shopped, and together we tried out a bunch of rings. 

My other sisters’ hands are more delicate than mine. My hands call to mind a worker, or farmer, or crafter, hands with knuckles and calluses. While shopping, we decided my hands were the best model for the ring for our mother, and so I was the odd model on this shopping expedition, with the jewelry merchants looking at me with eyebrow askance. With their beautifully groomed hands they examined mine, seeking different shapes and kinds of rings to try on, to find something that would balance my knuckly fingers.

One day, many years later, I was inside watching some commotion in the driveway. My son needed to add water to his rusty old radiator. The cap was stuck. My son, his dad, and a friend were standing around the car, hood up, scratching their heads. 

Watching this from inside the house, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to have a go. Grabbing a kitchen towel, I wandered outside. Approaching the car, I asked about the problem, then casually swooped in with my towel and my mother’s hands. 

I doubled up the kitchen towel over the four-pronged, blunt radiator knob, grasped it with my dominant hand, then added my other hand over top, all fingers locking in to seal the strength. I locked wrists, forearms, elbows to my shoulders and slowly rotated my torso. Of course the cap gave way. I straightened up, pulled off the towel, brushed off the thanks, and walked back into the house.

From my dad, I got the engineer’s outlook, and from my mom these strong, wise hands. From both of them, I was given ample opportunity to try anything, fail, and try again. 

Where did I learn to do this, I wonder? To not use my wrist and hand alone? The feeling wasn’t pride exactly, but closer to gratitude—for my parents who taught me to roof and landscape, and to use my head to solve problems. From my dad, I got the engineer’s outlook, and from my mom these strong, wise hands. From both of them, I was given ample opportunity to try anything, fail, and try again. 

I am now an engineering professor and have been given tremendous responsibility as a dean. Problem solving is what we teach engineering students, mingled with theory and design. We also give them ample opportunity to learn by doing. Yet, the largest part of their problem-solving “knack,” will come from the projects they already did, well before arriving in college.

All the tasks given to a child, the forced labor assigned to teens, and the challenges you take on as an adult, add up. I remember Dad giving instructions with no more detail than, “Take down this wall,” and I could not have wished for a better engineering teacher. We lost him too soon, when he was just 48, to cancer.

I wear her ring now and it fits me well. I could never fill her shoes, but I can fill her gloves. Around the blister earned from raking this weekend and the snagged skin from a thorn, I look at my mother’s hands and imagine them still shuffling and playing cards, the way she did when our work was through. 

My mother passed ten years ago this month. Miss you Mom! Still feel your strong—and gentle—touch.

Do you have your own stories about your mom, or dad, to share? Please email me. I would love to hear them, callahan@mtu.edu.

Janet Callahan, Dean
College of Engineering
Michigan Tech



Husky Bites: Join Us for Supper This Summer (Mondays at 6)!

Craving some brain food? Join Dean Janet Callahan and a special guest each Monday at 6 p.m. EST for a new, 20-minute interactive Zoom webinar from the College of Engineering at Michigan Technological University, followed by Q&A. Grab some supper, or just flop down on your couch. This family friendly event is BYOC (Bring Your Own Curiosity). All are welcome. Get the full scoop and register⁠—it’s free⁠—at mtu.edu/huskybites.

The special guests: A dozen engineering faculty have each volunteered to present a mini lecture for Husky Bites. They’ll weave in a bit of their own personal journey to engineering, too.

“We created Husky Bites for anyone who likes to learn, across the universe,” says Callahan. “We’re aiming to make it very interactive, with a “quiz” (in Zoom that’s a multiple choice poll), about every five minutes. “Everyone is welcome, and bound to learn something new. We are hoping entire families will enjoy it,” she adds. “We have prizes, too, for near perfect attendance!”

Topics include: Space, Satellites, and Students; Shipwrecks and Underwater Robots; A Quieter Future (Acoustics); Geospatial Wizardry; Color-Changing Potions and Magical Microbes; Scrubbing Water, There’s Materials Science and Engineering, in my Golf Bag, Biomedical Engineering the Future, How Do Machines Learn, Robotics, Math in Motion, and more. Get the full scoop and register (it’s free) at mtu.edu/huskybites

The series kicks off on Monday, May 11 with a session from GMES professor and chair John Gierke, a self-professed “Yooper graduate of the school of hard rocks.”

In his Husky Bites session, “How the Rocks Connect Us,” Gierke will talk about how the geology of the Keweenaw is more exposed and accessible. “The experience of spending time in the Copper Country is enhanced if you understand more about the forces of nature that formed this beautiful place,” he says. “The processes that led to the geological formations that lie beneath us and shaped our landscapes are what dictated many of the natural resources that are found where each of us live.” Gierke was born in the EUP (the Soo, aka Sault Sainte Marie) and graduated from Michigan Tech. He will provide practical explanations for why the mines are oriented as they are, where water is more prevalent—and the geological features that lead to waterfalls. You can read all about it here.

Other guests on Husky Bites include engineering faculty L. Brad King, Gordon Parker, Rebecca Ong, Guy Meadows, Andrew Barnard, Tony Pinar, Daisuke Minakata, Jeremy Bos, Joe Foster, Smitha Rao, and Steve Kampe.

Want to see the full schedule? Just go to mtu.edu/huskybites. You can register from there, too.


Everything has to be made out of something. The question is out of what—and how do we make it?

Ferrosilicon inoculant is added to a stream of liquid iron. Sparks fly as the inoculant reacts with the liquid iron.

These are the questions engineers at Michigan Tech have been asking since the university’s founding in 1885. It’s the task that graduates from the Department of Materials Science and Engineering (MSE) have excelled at since its inception as one of the two founding departments at the Michigan School of Mines in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in 1885. Back then, the department was known as Metallurgy, and its focus was on ways to extract valuable metals, such as copper or iron, from their naturally occurring states within minerals and underground deposits.  

Today the discipline of Materials Science and Engineering finds ways to use the fundamental physical origins of material behavior—the science of materials—to optimize properties through structure modification and processing, to design and invent new and better materials, and to understand why some materials unexpectedly fail. In other words, the engineering of materials.  

The Michigan Tech campus is located on the Portage Canal near Lake Superior.

Contemporary materials engineers (aka MSEs) work with metals and alloys, ceramics and glasses, polymers and elastomers; electronic, magnetic, and optical materials; composites, and many other emerging materials. That includes materials such as 2-D graphene, nanomaterials and biomaterials, materials that have been 3D printed or additively manufactured, smart materials, and specialized sensors.

Materials Science and Engineering (MSE) connects and collaborates with many other disciplines. The products and processes developed by MSEs are used by others to make new or improved products.

Materials Science and Engineering is inherently interdisciplinary—students interact and collaborate with students and scientists in other engineering disciplines, and also science disciplines, including chemistry and physics. 

Despite its legacy and historical central importance to all engineering endeavors, the materials discipline is relatively small compared to other engineering disciplines such as mechanical, electrical, civil, and chemical engineering. In fact, many universities do not have stand-alone materials departments.

“But this is one of the best aspects of being an MSE,” says Michigan Tech MSE Department Chair Steve Kampe, “Class sizes are small, and students build strong networks with classmates, the faculty and staff, and with likeminded colleagues from other universities from around the world,” he says. “It enables strong learning and collaborative environments with lots of personalized interaction and one-on-one mentoring.”

Not only is Kampe a member of the Michigan Tech faculty, he is also an alumnus, earning a Bachelor’s, Master’s, and PhD in Metallurgical Engineering, all from Michigan Tech. He joined academia after working in the corporate research laboratory for a major aerospace company, where scientists and engineers developed new products and technologies for the company’s future.

Examining material structure using the scanning electron microscope.

At Michigan Tech, the MSE department manages the university’s suite of scanning electron and transmission electron microscopes, including a unique, high resolution scanning transmission FEI Titan Themis. The facility also maintains excellent X-ray diffraction, X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy, and Auger electron spectroscopy capabilities. In the university’s Institute of Material Processing (IMP), also led by MSE faculty, processing capabilities include melt processing, deformation processing, microelectronic fabrication, and particulate (powder)-based processing capabilities. All students use these world-class facilities—even as undergraduates.

Students at Michigan Tech can join one of 24 Enterprise teams on campus to work on real projects, for real clients. Students invent products, provide services, and pioneer solutions. Advanced Metalworks Enterprise (AME) is a popular enterprise among MSE students. Small groups within the AME team take ownership of metallurgical manufacturing projects, working closely with industry sponsors.

The Advanced MetalWorks Enterprise team, AME, at Michigan Technological University

“Being on an Enterprise team helps students build a résumé, develop teamwork skills, form professional relationships, and learn what to expect in the workforce,” says Kampe. “We’re grateful for our corporate sponsors’ help in offering students an opportunity to take textbook skills from the classroom and apply them in practical ways, to experiment, and get results.”

MSE students also get involved in Materials United (MU), a student professional organization that exposes them to all aspects of Materials Science and Engineering—learning about industry, sharing research, developing personal skills, participating in professional societies, and traveling to international conferences. 

As one example of student success, MSE students from Michigan Tech won first place in ASM International’s Undergraduate Design Competition the last two years in a row, based on entries from their capstone senior design projects. Last year, the winning entry was based on a project entitled “Cobalt reduction in Tribaloy T-400” sponsored by Winsert, Inc. of Marinette, Wisconsin.

Microstructure of Tribaloy T-400 containing a Co solid solution, a C14 Laves phase, and a Co solid solution-C14 Laves eutectic phase.

“Winsert currently uses an alloy similar to Tribaloy T-400, a cobalt-based alloy, in the production of internal combustion engine valve seats,” Kampe explains. “Cobalt is an expensive element with a rapidly fluctuating price, due to political instability in the supplier countries. The alloy contains approximately 60 wt. percent cobalt, contributing significantly to its price. There are also serious sustainability and environmental implications associated with the use of cobalt—both positive and negative,” he says. “Cobalt is one of the elements used as an anode material for lithium ion batteries that are now under heavy development for electric vehicles.” 

The student team investigated the replacement of cobalt with other transition elements such as iron, nickel, and aluminum using thermodynamic modeling. “All MSE senior design projects at Michigan Tech use advanced simulation and modeling tools, experimental calibration, and statistical-based analyses of the results,” notes Kampe. “The Winsert project utilized software called CALPHAD (Pandat) with a form of machine learning —Bayesian Optimization—to identify new and promising alloy substitutions. Such advanced techniques are rarely introduced at the undergraduate level in most other MSE programs.”

“Our department’s small size allows meaningful student involvement in hands-on laboratory activities, personal access to facilities, real participation in leading-edge projects, and close networking with peers, faculty and staff, alumni, and prospective employers,” adds Kampe. “The benefits of being a part of a strong professional network continues after graduation. Our strong learning community becomes our students’ first professional network after they graduate. It gives them a strong early foundation for a great career.”

A metal matrix composite created by infiltrating magnesium into a carbonized wood lattice. In this senior design project, the MSE team collaborated with Michigan Tech’s College of Forest Resources and Environmental Science.

Due to the importance of materials to the success of nearly all engineered products, MSEs enjoy employment opportunities in a wide range of industries and in a variety of functions. For example, MSEs are prominent within the automotive, aerospace, electronics, consumer products, and defense industries, performing duties such as new material design, material substitution and optimization, manufacturing science, and material forensics, such as material identification and failure analyses. 

MSE undergraduate students Kiaya Caspers, Jared Harper, Jonah Jarczewski, and Pierce Mayville.

“There are also rich opportunities in corporate and government research and development, since new products and functionalities often start with advancements in our understanding of materials, or in our ability to process them,” says Kampe. “MSE graduates from Michigan Tech enjoy nearly 100 percent placement at graduation due not only to the reputation of the department, but also due to the fact that just about all engineering-oriented companies rely on materials for their products.”


COVID-19: At Michigan Tech, How One Big Ship is Turning Itself Around.

R.L Smith Building, home to the Department of Mechanical Engineering-Engineering Mechanics. “Like so many universities, we have a great culture of kindness here at Michigan Tech, says Chair William Predebon. “We’re all going through this together.”

Bill Predebon, longtime chair of Mechanical Engineering-Engineering Mechanics at Michigan Tech, recently sent an email to all the students in his department. He asked three questions: “What went right? What went wrong?” And then, “Are you having any issues with tools?”

“Almost immediately I received 80 responses from undergraduates,” he said. “It’s important to solicit feedback directly from students while they are still in the midst of it.”

As universities across the state of Michigan and across the nation moved their courses to remote instruction to help slow the spread of COVID-19, Predebon had to act fast. Getting 1,736 students, and 55 faculty members entirely online in just four days was no small task.

“We’re a large ME department, one of the largest in the nation, but because of our strong sense of community of Michigan Tech, our culture of kindness, there was an immediate sense of responsibility to respond in a coordinated way—the best possible way,” says Predebon.

Predebon turned to ME-EM Associate Chair Jeff Allen, who quickly became the department’s conduit for using online tools.

“Jeff investigated the technology, so our faculty wouldn’t have to do that,” Predebon explains. “The majority had never taught online before—only about a dozen of our faculty had taken Michigan Tech’s online learning certification course.”

ME-EM Department Chair Bill Predebon stands in an empty lab classroom in the R.L. Smith Building on campus, with some equipment in the backround.
“Dealing with open-ended solutions, where there isn’t one right answer, is a key part of the design of our Mechanical Engineering Practice courses,” says Predebon. “I hope those problem-solving skills are helping our students, as they adjust to learning from home.”

“The first thing I did was to rephrase the information,” says Allen. “It had been presented by type of software, but not by function.” ME-EM faculty with online teaching experience also started helping, making phone calls and emailing back and forth with their colleagues.

“It’s really hard to give a lecture in an empty room. There’s zero feedback,” says Allen. “We were showing our faculty how to use the online lecture tools on campus. But then, within a day or two, as we realized what might be coming, I began urging faculty to gather all they’d need to teach their courses from home.”

Allen quickly bought webcams for faculty, along with headsets and microphones. “Everyone seemed to have a different kind of technology at home. Webcams sold out very fast online. All around the country, everyone was doing the same thing,” he said.

Four years ago, the Department eliminated traditional mechanical engineering labs and replaced them with hands-on Mechanical Engineering Practice (MEP) courses I, II, III and IV. The MEP courses are designed to be adaptable so that new subjects can be embedded as technologies advance. But how to virtualize these intensive hands-on courses?

“Our Graduate Teaching Assistants really went above and beyond. Udit Sharma and JJ Song recorded a half semester’s worth of video demonstrations in less than a week for the second MEP. There were similar efforts by faculty, staff and graduate students for the other three MEP courses,” said Allen. “They did an amazing job.”

Meanwhile, another group was busy virtualizing the ME-EM department’s Engineering Learning Center, an idea suggested by academic advisor Ryan Towles. Aneet Narendranath, a senior lecturer in mechanical engineering, spearheaded the effort.

“Our learning center supports our core courses—Thermodynamics, Statics, Dynamics, and Mechanics of Materials,” says Predebon. “Students taking these fundamental courses can now access peer tutoring online, from home.”

“Michigan Tech’s Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) shipped out document cameras to all our peer tutors. Then Dr. Narendranath coordinated a trial run—trying out the system as we put it into place,” says Allen. “Several faculty volunteered as guinea pigs, to let student tutors practice the system. We found subtle, odd things we weren’t expecting. Aneet and Ryan practiced together quite a bit more before we sent a message about it to all our students.”

Allen’s emphasis now has switched almost entirely to students. “At home, just like our faculty, their technology and tools vary. Some things really surprised us. For instance, very few students actually have a printer.”

Jeff Allen is the John F. and Joan M. Calder Professor in Mechanical Engineering. He is also the Associate Chair and Director of Undergraduate Studies in the ME-EM Department.

“One of our students had no computer at home,” adds Predebon.”When I found out, I was able to get a computer into her hands, but it took a few days. I thought it took a long time. She said she thought it was fast.”

“Most students are doing well now, especially those with a strong internet connection,” says Allen. “Other students relied much more on our university system. We’ve been going back and forth to iron out the bugs. Faculty are very flexible with student deadlines,” says Allen.

“The situation has shown the tenacity and caring of our faculty,” says Predebon. “One faculty member herself lives in an area with poor internet access. She tried many things to improve it, to no avail. To solve the problem she drives to a university building and parks in front to upload lessons for her students, and download their work. The building is closed, but she can still log in to the internet from her car. She can get back to her family faster that way, too. She has young children at home.”

“It has been a fantastic effort. Now we want to get through this semester. We’ll see what the summer holds, and this coming year,” adds Predebon. “We’ll take it as it comes.”


Mechanical Engineer Turned Fine Artist: Gary Johnson (Part 2)

Gary Johnson, a Michigan Tech alumnus in Fayetteville Arkansas, tells the story of his second career: “It has taken years to break my engineer’s exacting look, and feel comfortable having people see what they want to see in my work.”

When it comes to the abstract, my inspiration develops as I develop the painting. I always try to utilize the design principles of good balance between geometric and curvilinear shapes, development of value change throughout the painting, and a good use of complementary colors. But it’s all in the eye of the beholder whether you like it or not.

Star Gazing, 2019, Gary Johnson
Star Gazing, 2019, Gary Johnson

Other times I get inspired by just items around the house that we’ve collected over the years. It dawned on me that I hadn’t painted a still life piece in quite a while, so I started looking at some china pieces we collected and thought they’d make a wonderful painting.

Rhapsody in Blue, 2019, Gary Johnson
Rhapsody in Blue, 2019, Gary Johnson

Sometimes it isn’t so much that inspiration finds me, as much as it is that someone commissions a painting. Now that is the ultimate compliment: when someone has seen my work and trusts me to paint something they treasure. This requires a lot of careful consideration on my part to make a determination if I’m up to the task. First, I need a good photograph—not some pixelated picture, but a really good piece I can blow up as if I were right there to see it all with my own eyes. If I can take the photograph myself, so much the better as I like to take advantage of any shadows cast. Here’s one–a portrait of a dog named Maximus.

Portraits are difficult. My advice is this: always make sure you get the eyes right. Everything else from there will work out.

Maximus, Gary Johnson, 2016
Maximus, Gary Johnson, 2016

People ask where I paint. We designed our home with a studio in it. This makes it so much more convenient for me as I can wander up anytime during the day or night to work on a painting.

My studio is on the second floor of our house. When I decide I’m too old to walk up and down those stairs (18 in all, and yes, I counted them) it can easily be converted into a master suite or a mother in-law-suite as it has a closet and bathroom next to it. After all, watercolorists need water and a place to rinse out the brushes among other things. It’s approximately 300 square feet—a comfortable size to house my good old-fashioned drafting table, flat files, and shelving units needed to support my habit.

The artist in his studio.
The artist in his studio.

I’m sometimes asked about my outlook on life as an artist. Is it different than my outlook as an engineer/business executive? To be honest, it isn’t much different. I suppose now that I’m retired, I want to be sure I’m alive long enough to achieve some of my long-range goals. Goal setting is something I’ve always done, so not much change there.

I don’t have a concern about what my next job or position might be now that I’m a retired artist. In my working life, I wasn’t always in control of my destiny. That’s one big difference from the working world. If I don’t finish a painting today, I can always work on it tomorrow. I can take as long as I want to finish a painting.

Snack Time, Gary Johnson
Snack Time, Gary Johnson

Have I ever experienced a creative block? I sure have. That’s when I usually put the brushes aside and start to read and study another person’s work. It’s also good to make a change in my daily activity as well, to not get stuck in a rut, so to speak. Variety is the spice of life and that is true for artists as well. Change it up. Go fishing. Get outside. You’d be surprised how quickly new ideas can pop up to jumpstart the creative juices and get them flowing again.

Am I a perfectionist? Not really. I would have never taken up watercolor painting. It is extremely unforgiving. When I make an error, I consider it a happy accident and work around it, as opposed to trying to do it over again, or trying to fix it. Neither work well in watercolor painting.

Personality-wise, I’m pretty much an optimist and a fairly outgoing person. I suppose it’s because of the confidence I gained while managing companies and people. I enjoy making new contacts and I enjoy giving back to my community. That’s why I’ve become a teacher of art, and a leader in our art organization here in Fayetteville. I hope I’ve influenced people to become involved in the art scene.

People ask if I have developed a style in my art. I’m still working in it, although people are starting to recognize my abstract pieces more and more as I display them at galleries in the area. More people now say they can easily recognize a piece as one of mine.

A Day In the Park, Gary Johnson
A Day In the Park, Gary Johnson

Realistically, I think my style is still evolving, growing into a less-structured, photographic type of painting—a looser style that I personally love. It has taken years to break my engineer’s exacting look and feel comfortable having people see what they want to see in my work, as opposed to making it obvious.

Autumn Reflection, Gary Johnson
Autumn Reflection, Gary Johnson

I hope you enjoyed reading my story as much as I’ve enjoyed putting it in writing. Feel free to contact me at garyj357@yahoo.com.

Gary

Coming soon: Part 3 of Gary’s guest blog. Learn how to make your own beautiful watercolor pigments (from rocks), and read his sage adviceboth to young people starting out, and those about to move into retirement. Did you happen to miss Part 1? Here’s the link. Want to see more of Gary’s paintings? Find them at garyjohnsonfineart.com


Michigan Tech Engineer Captures the Northern Lights

North Canal Park, April 2019. Credit: Michigan Tech Alumnus Venkata Rajesh Chundru

Some of us have waited a decade or more to see the Northern Lights since moving to Houghton, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Then there’s Venkata Rajesh Chundru, now a research engineer at Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas. While earning his PhD in Mechanical Engineering-Engineering Mechanics at Michigan Tech from 2014 to 2019, Chundru managed to see—and artfully capture—Aurora Borealis time after time. And he has generously offered to share some of his favorite photographs with us here.

Calumet Waterworks Park, September 2017. Credit: Venkata Rajesh Chundru

Eagle Harbor, September 2016. Credit: Venkata Rajesh Chundru

Calumet Waterworks Park, September 2017. Credit: Venkata Rajesh Chundru

McLain State Park, February 2017. Credit: Venkata Rajesh Chundru

Eagle Harbor, May 2016. Credit: Venkata Rajesh Chundru

Copper Harbor, March 2016. Credit: Venkata Rajesh Chundru

Calumet Waterworks Park, May 2019. Credit: Venkata Rajesh Chundru

Michigan Tech Campus, Canal Side, February 2016. Credit: Venkata Rajesh Chundru

The photographer at Copper Peak, September 2018. Thank you, Venkata! We wish you the very best of luck in your new home!

“Since moving to Texas I have been capturing cityscapes and doing some professional portrait sessions for events, while soaking in the Texan culture. These photographs bring back a lot of good memories from all those years in the U.P. I do intend to be back during summer for a week to capture some landscapes,” says Chundru. “Life in San Antonio has more of an urban feel. I miss the wide-open landscapes and warm people back in the U.P, and of course the snow.

“In my new job at Southwest Research Institute, I’m focused on developing control systems for automotive applications—specifically to control emissions from heavy-duty diesel engines, which is in line with my Ph.D. work at Michigan Tech. I also get to work on new research areas, such as connected vehicles and electric vehicle controls.”

As for COVID-19? “Stay safe out there,” he says. “Hope this passes soon.”

Want to see more beautiful photography? Be sure to visit Chundru’s photography page on Facebook, or his Instagram account.

Have some of your own Aurora Borealis images to share? Please reach out to Kimberly Geiger, kmgeiger@mtu.edu. If you like, we’d be glad to post them here on our blog.