Sharon Uwanyuze Wants to Lessen Pollution in the Aerospace and Automotive Industries

photo of Sharon Uwanyuze after being awarded the "Best in MSE Program" certificate by the School of Engineering during the 2020 Annual Poster Competition

MSE graduate student Sharon Uwanyuze after being awarded the “Best in MSE Program” certificate by the School of Engineering during the 2020 Annual Poster Competition.

By Alec Arbia, Written Communications Assistant
When asked to describe her overall experience as an MSE graduate student, Sharon Uwanyuze says it was one that “pushed me out of my comfort zone to explore more of what I can be.”
Uwanyuze first got connected with UConn’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering when she went to a conference back in 2018. “I was an undergraduate research assistant at the University of Alabama in Birmingham, and when I went to present my work I met MSE faculty member Professor Cato Laurencin. When he came over to my poster we talked for some time, and I told him I was applying to grad schools and also some industry positions. He told me about the great opportunities at UConn, and I later looked up the school. It definitely seemed very competitive and in a new area which would make it more of an adventure for me. I then got in contact with some other professors who were very interested in some of the work that I’d been doing. These interactions made coming to UConn a smooth transition.”
When Uwanyuze first became interested in research as an undergraduate, she worked in an advanced ceramics lab. Her current research involves understanding and mitigating interfacial reactions that form during investment casting of titanium alloy parts in ceramic oxide molds. In simpler terms: “When we want to make a part out of titanium or titanium alloys (with additives), the raw materials have to be melted and then put in a mold of the shape that you want. That mold is made out of ceramic materials. What we then want is to carefully choose the material we’re making the ceramic mold out of so that we prevent reactions when the metal touches the ceramic surface. My work deals with innovating new materials that can show even higher chemical resistance than the current materials that are used.”
What interests Uwanyuze most about this research is the application of the parts that she makes. Titanium is lightweight, corrosion resistant, and has excellent biocompatibility. “More than half of titanium alloy parts (around 60%) go to aerospace applications and allow us to have lighter planes that consume less fuel – that’s less pollution, and faster planes as well. The other relatively large percentage goes into making biomedical implants, like knee implants or hip implants, which are very useful for a person who has a disability.”
When asked what she hopes the impact of this research will be, Uwanyuze says, “I’m really hoping that we can implement more of the material that I’m studying – which is called strontium zirconate – as an improved mold material in casting titanium alloys. If we use advanced materials like these as mold materials, then we can make more titanium alloy parts – without the need of extra processing to remove reaction layers. The manufacturing would take less time and gradually become cheaper, meaning that we can produce more of these parts and we can have them in other applications – not just the high-end applications like aerospace and biomedicine. We can have them even in automotive parts. If our cars have lighter materials – I think they are trying to implement aluminum, but titanium can get to an even higher temperature – we can have lighter cars, less fuel consumption, less pollution. That is what I hope will be the general impact.”
Already, Uwanyuze has had the opportunity to publish several research papers. “Publishing a paper can be almost a whole year worth of data collection, writing, revising, review. We first have to understand what is not known currently and how can I bridge that gap, and then collect good data. Sometimes you go to the lab and things just don’t want to work out, so you come back and try again. It’s been a journey and it has taught me perseverance.”
Additionally, Uwanyuze has a lot of interest in mentoring and teaching. “In the MSE department we serve as teaching assistants for a couple of semesters, but I went ahead and did an extra semester. I also took the Graduate Certificate of College Instruction, which is a program that is available to grad students who are interested in improving their teaching and considering a possible career in academia. It’s offered through the School of Education, and I finished that last December. During that process I was able to apply what I learned and the MSE department awarded me the MSE Teaching Excellence Award in 2020 so I was grateful for that.”
Uwanyuze is a member of several organizations, including Grad Black STEM where she helps to mentor undergraduate students seeking to pursue higher education in a STEM field. Previously, she served as Intellectual Merit Chair, but was recently elected President of the organization. “The role of Intellectual Merit Chair is to plan events and activities that enhance the academic excellence of the members. Some of the things we do are effective presentation styles, research seminars, and good ways to present your research to a wide audience.”
As President of the organization, Uwanyuze now oversees activities in other areas as well, such as Broader Impact and Professional Presence, which consist of mentoring undergraduates and learning how to make yourself marketable.
Another organization Uwanyuze is part of is His Branches Adventurer Club, a local church-based program for children in grades 1-4 to play, learn and improve their social skills. Previously she was the Director of this program, and now serves in an advisory role. “I love to see the imagination, creativity and innovation that the children have, and being able to work with a child through their process of discovering themselves and discovering a new topic. We learn about different things like fire safety and hygiene, and just being able to read. These are simple things, but the same concept applies to general teaching skills, like teaching an undergrad course. I still have to understand that they’re people, they’re not just there to consume information. Just caring about the whole person. I really enjoyed that role.”
Uwanyuze says that the MSE department at UConn is really interconnected. “It’s not an overwhelming size, so we are able to get to know each other, both among students and between students and faculty. We have a lot of resources at our disposal; the labs are great. I have the opportunity to work in both the new Science 1 complex and the Innovation Partnership Building, both of which are world-class facilities. It’s been really nice having those buildings at my disposal. The move was a bit challenging but it was worth it in the end.”
There are many people in the MSE department that Uwanyuze admires. “I have great role models in the department, whether it’s other students or faculty that I can look up to and that push me to aim even higher. The support system has been great, both in classes and in research as well. I’ve had really supportive advisors.”
Currently Uwanyuze’s advisor is Professor Pamir Alpay. “Even though he is now the interim Vice President for Research, he makes time for us as his students through weekly meetings and checking in with us both about our academic research and professional goals. I appreciate that.”
Uwanyuze also speaks fondly of her former advisor, Professor Stefan Schaffoener, who transferred from UConn to the University of Bayreuth in 2021. “Even though he moved to a different school, he still stays in touch with the students he advised almost on a weekly basis to check in on how we are doing in terms of research, academics, and even job applications.”
When asked how UConn has helped her work towards her career goals, Uwanyuze says, “When I was a younger student at UConn, I felt like I had opportunities to grow in either industry or academia. I mentioned resources such as the Graduate Certificate of College Instruction, which was a great stepping stone toward exploring the world of academia. Regarding industry, different career fairs and internship opportunities were extremely helpful. So I’ve been able to explore both industry and academia, and gladly I have job offers and opportunities in both. So that in itself is a great indication of how well the department and the school have prepared me to have several doors open in my future.”
Uwanyuze made it a point to mention how grateful she is to be featured. “I just think it’s really nice to have opportunities like this to reflect on ourselves and our own journeys and get to share them with somebody else. I’m glad that the department is valuing sharing people’s stories. It’s nice when we can share and maybe somebody can relate to it or even be inspired.”

Published: March 31, 2023

Categories: ceramic, graduate students, news, research

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