Majoring In MSE Will Help You Shoot For The Stars

By Alec Arbia, written communications assistant

photo of Aurora Buswell, junior materials science and engineering (MSE) major.

Aurora Buswell, junior materials science and engineering (MSE) major.

Junior undergrad Aurora Buswell hadn’t heard of materials science and engineering (MSE) until her freshman year at UConn. It was after taking Foundations of Engineering, a class that exposes students to the types of work done in different engineering disciplines, that she decided to transition from the ACES program to MSE. (ACES is UConn’s academic advising program for students who want to explore the university’s academic opportunities before deciding on a field of study.)

“I was captivated by how the molecular structure of a material could have such drastic impacts on what it was capable of,” Buswell said. “This showed me just how important MSE is in engineering; if you want your design to work, you need to choose the right materials! This makes it a great career choice too, because engineers in every other discipline need the help of a materials scientist/engineer. We can tell you the type of forces something can withstand, how well it conducts electricity, how fast it might melt, and even how combining different materials will affect the overall component. We’re needed pretty much everywhere, so there’s a really wide range of job options.”

“I have always known I wanted to go into research, so I chose UConn because it had such a wide range of undergraduate research opportunities,” Buswell explained. “When talking to my coworkers during my internship at NASA, I learned that the experience I gained as a research assistant at UConn was a somewhat rare and valuable background for an undergraduate like me in comparison to those from other departments or schools. I definitely made the right choice.”

For two semesters, during the spring and summer of 2022, Buswell had the opportunity to intern at the NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland Ohio. “I have always wanted to work at NASA because it’s an organization that is centered around the goal of expanding the knowledge of our universe. It is one of the only places where you are not only impacting the world, but the solar system, in real time! As NASA states, its primary goal is discovery for the benefit of all. I am so grateful to be a part of that.”

“NASA values teamwork, excellence and inclusion, and this could not be more evident in the day-to-day work culture,” Buswell explained. “I felt that my ideas were seriously considered in every discussion I took part in – even though I was just an intern. The core belief is that innovation is best achieved by embracing a wide range of perspectives, so the people there are very open-minded. Resilience is another one of NASA’s core values, so there is an attitude of positivity when it comes to facing setbacks, which felt very encouraging to me as someone just starting out. The culture is very uplifting, and I always felt like my voice was being heard.”

Buswell went on to explain a typical day at the internship: “I usually started my day by coordinating with my team members to determine how we could each work towards our collective goal. I was working with the additive manufacturing team and my job was to study mechanical properties of a certain material, so my day was usually divided between printing samples, testing them, and analyzing the data. I would also use characterization techniques like optical and scanning electron microscopy. I could identify patterns in the physical appearance of the samples after they were compressed or pulled apart, and connect this with the data I compiled. I got to design a lot of the experiments I conducted which was a valuable experience.”

As department head Bryan Huey notes, “That’s exactly why MSE has made such a strong commitment to our teaching labs, with more than half a million dollars in equipment in the last 5 years, and all overseen by Fiona Leek—one of our most popular professors. The work we do in MSE is more hands-on than any other discipline, and it can be very open-ended. So we strive to prepare our students to have the knowledge, and know the tools, to be able to answer whatever technical questions come their way.”

For Buswell, the best part of interning at NASA was “getting to meet so many creative people doing such a wide variety of research, and getting behind-the-scenes with the projects NASA celebrates with the world. People from so many different backgrounds in materials were eager to show me their work, from metals additive manufacturing to the fabrication of polymer-reinforced aerogels. I got to see their one-of-a-kind testing facilities like the wind tunnels, the 300-foot drop tower, and the giant sandbox where they test prototypes of Mars rovers! Overall, I had so much fun, and I learned so much more about all the different avenues a materials scientist/engineer can take in their career.”

The two skills that Buswell found to be most important during the internship were “creativity and being able to work in a team. The truth is that in real life, most engineering problems don’t have straightforward solutions, and there isn’t a clear-cut ‘right’ course of action. You need to be ready to think outside the box and apply your knowledge in unconventional ways. I often found myself in situations where my team encountered some sort of problem – a malfunction with a testing instrument, for example – that none of us knew how to solve off the bat. We worked together to think of a solution, which was sometimes just to use a simple household object like hairspray! Never be afraid to contribute your ideas no matter how silly you might think they are– they just might be the answer your team is looking for.”

The professor that has had the most impact on Buswell during her time at UConn MSE is “the wonderful Dr. Seok-Woo Lee. I met with him my sophomore year before I transitioned from ACES to MSE, and he explained his research in mechanical properties of materials to me. He showed me that knowledge of materials science was the real key to making an engineering design work, because the molecular makeup of materials has such an extreme impact on the forces it can withstand. I thought it was so cool that such tiny features in a material could make or break an engineering design. I also had the privilege of working in his lab, recently earning co-authorship in a research paper.”

Professor Lee had equally kind words to say about Aurora. “I am so proud of her for completing her internship at NASA. She also contributed greatly to my research laboratory. Her nanoindentation results, which she obtained last summer, played an important role in our recent paper published in the Journal of Materials Research. Aurora is an excellent student who has always been passionate about materials science research. She is well on her way to being a top materials scientist.”

When asked about her career goals, Buswell said, “I ultimately would like to work in Research and Development (R&D). UConn has given me a great foundation for this because our program takes a comprehensive approach to MSE. I have not only learned how to operate materials testing equipment, but I also understand how the instruments themselves function so I can decide how to optimize their settings for my research goals. I know the best strategies to test different types of materials as well as how they will behave in a given application. I’ve been educated on the theory behind different types of material properties, and I’ve gotten lots of hands-on experience in the lab. I feel confident that I can conduct effective research, and I have gained a lot of important skills just from my coursework that I can put on my resume.”

Published: December 14, 2023

Categories: internship, NASA, news, undergraduate students

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