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University of Connecticut: Award-winning faculty, outstanding material science graduates

Manuel Rivas first knew learned about the University of Connecticut’s Materials Science and Engineering Department at the Electronics Materials and Applications conference in Florida. UConn faculty were running the meeting, and many of the symposia. While speaking with some of them and their students, he found a discussion about atomic force microscopy (AFM), a technique Rivas hadn’t heard of before, fascinating.

When he was recruited to join a UConn research team focusing on developing and applying novel variations of AFM, it was “an opportunity of a lifetime” that Rivas did not want to pass up. “With their mentoring and comradery, it made being more than 2,000 miles from home not feel so bad,” he says. Instead, he described it as “life-changing.”

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UConn students work in all areas of advanced materials, from aerospace to semiconductors to medicine. Source: University of Connecticut

Guided by his professors, Rivas would go on to receive an NSF Bridge to Doctorate programme (BTD) fellowship promoting participants of underrepresented groups in the STEM disciplines. A master’s project and a summer internship at the Army Research Lab near Washington DC followed. Later, he landed a full- time job for three years with the ARL while he completed his PhD.

Today, he’s a Technical Programme Manager for Blue Origin at their headquarters in Kent, Washington. The radiation effects engineer helps ensure mission success for their space rockets and stations. “I get to leave my fingerprint on many things that will not just fly to space but really have the chance to impact the future of humanity,” he says.

Journeys like Rivas’s are typical amongst MSE graduates. Founded in 1881, UConn is among the top-ranked public universities in the nation, according to US News & World Report’s America’s Best Colleges (2023) list. It’s home to the Materials Science and Engineering (MSE) department, where students can pursue the #1 public MSE programme in the Northeastern US. And according to The Wall Street Journal, UConn is one of the 50 best universities in America, public or private. MSE ranked ninth nationwide for value of the earned degree.

In Storrs, Connecticut, students can pursue full-time, thesis-based, paid in-person PhD as well as Master of Science degrees. A Master of Engineering programme is ideal for part-time students, offering many online course options.

The department has a broad range of expertise, from advanced metallurgy and additive manufacturing to functional ceramics, microscopy, materials modelling, and materials for energy and sustainability. This shows in the available courses, high-impact publications by UConn MSE students, and incredible job placement upon graduation. MSE alumni are getting dream jobs with Apple, Intel, RTX, Pfizer, Applied Materials, ASML, Blue Origin, NASA, Medtronic, and many others.

There is also a strong focus on professional skills, real-world problem-solving, local and international partnerships, and industry relevance. Employees of small tech-transfer firms, as well as major companies, are even embedded in UConn MSE’s offices and labs. This fosters especially strong collaboration with industry. Many graduates have gone on to become faculty members as well, at universities large and small across the US and the world.

Former division three tennis player and MSE PhD student Kyrus Tsai was initially inspired to be a materials engineer to advance the material components used in tennis rackets. Now, he is working on materials characterisation of additively manufactured metals, especially observing their microstructure using a range of advanced microscopy techniques.

Tsai is a member of Professor Mark Aindow’s microscopy group. As part of a major joint effort, he is also regularly updated on the work done in Professor Seok-Woo Lee’s micromechanical testing group, and Professor Avinash Dongare’s computational team. “This really helps me to gain a deeper understanding of fields and topics I otherwise may not touch on in my focused research,” he says. “Having meetings where other research areas are discussed in detail gives insight in ways that you just cannot get from attending occasional seminars or reading research papers.”

At UConn, materials science thrives on collaboration — like those forged by MSE’s “incredibly friendly and knowledgeable” faculty and staff, according to Tsai. The MSE department is guided by 20 outstanding core faculty members. Many are internationally recognised fellows in professional materials organisations like MRS, TMS, ASM, ACerS, ECS, AAAS, and even the US National Academies. Other accolades, including nine career award winners, industry leadership, and patent holdings, are the outcome of excellent teaching and groundbreaking research. For example, UConn MSE researchers recently created a new material, made from DNA and glass, that is four times stronger than steel. Such creative designs can improve future cars and body armour, and exemplify the interdisciplinary strength of UConn materials.

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MSE is the top engineering programme at UConn and a top 25 public institution in the US. Source: University of Connecticut

What further sets the department apart is how it merges the faculty’s research excellence and wealth of experience with camaraderie. With about 70 PhD students, 30 MS and MEng students, and 150 undergraduates, MSE fosters a tight-knit community. It features collaboration across academic years, promotes expanding students’ peer networks, supports productive study groups, and provides many opportunities for leadership and social activities.

With materials faculty serving as the overall University President, and the Vice President for Research, the institutional and regional prioritisation of materials at UConn could not be stronger. In fact, over the past five years, UConn has invested US$400 million in two state-of-the-art facilities and cutting-edge equipment for materials research and education. Such an investment is unparalleled worldwide.

“Now that we’ve moved into the brand new Institute of Materials Science, our almost 300 students, researchers, faculty, and staff are excited to keep building on our already strong programme,” Huey says. “This year our faculty are overseeing US$60 million in active research funding. This means there are more opportunities than ever for bright, driven students to join us at UConn MSE so they can ‘Materialize their Future’.”

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