Updated: Oct 3, 2021
In the domain of materials science, we learn by doing - by working with the materials we’re interested in, placing them under a microscope for study - literally and otherwise. Experiments in the lab contextualize abstract concepts covered in the classroom - an image of the science in action.
Alas, COVID-19 had other plans. Over a year and a half of disruption, to whatever degree, has left us with little choice but to adapt to studying online. Some countries are opening up, others are not as fortunate; in either case, learning how to arm yourself with crucial skills as a materials scientist despite these setbacks can be incredibly useful in the long run.
Some skills are invaluable no matter the domain, no matter the class of materials you’re passionate about. These are the transferable skills that would make you an invaluable asset - be it in your future workplace or research group.
Here’s a (certainly not exhaustive) list of some of the things you could do to make the best of the situation.
1. Learn to code (at least the basics!)
Computer science is inextricably linked to any field of engineering today; ours is no exception. Breaking down complex problems into logical steps is the bedrock of science - and this is a skill that coding lets you hone.
Besides this rather abstract benefit, you will also invariably encounter programming at some point in your career, even if you’re not actively writing code for a living. Being comfortable with interpreting programs will save you a lot of future trouble and time. Just being able to find the necessary documentation and figure things out on your own is a skill worth having.
Python, for instance, is a great starting point, with countless (free) resources available online. It’s made its way to the top, being a fairly simple programming language for absolute beginners, with plenty of customization and documentation available for easy reference. Here's a really nice set of videos with a materials perspective.
2. Learn general-purpose scientific software.
Irrespective of the specialization in materials science (or for that matter engineering as a whole), knowing your way around some general-purpose software will make your life easy.
For example, a lot of research involves data interpretation and presentation using graphs and tables. If you can work with software that lets you plot graphs and statistical analysis with the data (like Origin), you’ll be able to glean more insights from your own work. Even knowledge around MS Excel (and equivalent software) can help you work faster - learning shortcuts and the in-built functions can help you shed redundancy, letting you focus on what’s actually intellectually demanding.
Another topic you could explore, once you're a little comfortable with handling data - and this is if you're interested - would be machine learning. As demonstrated in this episode of the podcast, it's rapidly being adopted to solve materials science problems, and understanding how to use it in conjunction with materials knowledge will be sought-after expertise in the future.
As with any such "popular" topic in STEM, there's no dearth of excellent, free resources to learn all of this open-source. The portal nanoHUB has a few simple pre-designed tutorials for understanding this from a materials science standpoint
Additionally, engineering software like MATLAB and design software like AutoCAD can also be quite useful, depending on the line of work you’re interested in. AutoCAD can be very useful if you’re working alongside product prototyping, for example.
3. Explore computational materials science.
This is the most domain-specific item on our list, so I’ll delve into this a bit deeper.
If you’re unable to work on materials science problems in the lab, you can still tackle them with MSE know-how - right at your computer.
Computational MSE involves applying established physical models to simulate material systems which might not have necessarily been synthesized in the lab, or tested in a particular environment of interest. This can be for any number of reasons - maybe the material is particularly finicky with its chemistry, maybe the environment required is too difficult to maintain, maybe this is just a preliminary screening before experimental study.
Simulations can be carried out across length scales, right from the atomic level to the macroscopic (“continuum”) level. For atomic-level simulations, you can look into Density Functional Theory (DFT) calculations, which use results from quantum mechanics to calculate material properties “ab initio” - directly from the atom’s properties, using nothing else. (I found this self-paced online course particularly useful - it’s very interactive and novice-friendly.)
There are countless tutorials for open-source packages (like Quantum ESPRESSO) available on YouTube. You can try those out and see for yourself the exciting potential this method offers.
As you move up the scale into larger dimensions, there’s Molecular Dynamics (MD) - here, forces between different atoms are used to compute their positions in space and time, which is then connected to the desired property. This method is not as intimidating as DFT can be in terms of the theory behind it, and you can try out open-source software here too (LAMMPS is a great starting point). Here’s a list of lectures that introduce LAMMPS and what it can do for materials scientists and chemists.
Both the above software have excellent community support, with thousands of users worldwide. You can also get a friend who’s also interested in computer-based simulations of materials and explore tutorials together - this can help you figure things out faster if you get stuck (and let’s be real, you will get stuck).
Besides these, many other interesting techniques exist for modeling materials (phase-field method, Monte Carlo methods…) and are also equally interesting in what they offer.
The space of computational MSE is vast and evolving - being even a beginner in these methods and the software packages that implement them can be of great use, helping you approach a wide body of research in MSE. There are virtually infinite materials - with these tools, they’re all the more at your disposal to explore!
4. Learn to attend workshops, lectures, and symposia.
For those of us who don’t have the luxury to attend workshops and conferences around the world, the pandemic has somehow helped. A good chunk of conferences and workshops have moved online, and as a result, have also waived off any participation fees for attendees. As a student of MSE, it’s not expected that you’d be able to understand everything in these events - after all, we’re just starting out.
Nevertheless, they can help you figure out your interests. A webinar on materials for 3D printing in space? A workshop on synthesizing bioinspired materials? A lecture by a Nobel laureate who pioneered the Li-ion battery? Never before have so many opportunities been instantly accessible.
The dizzying complexity, the wonder of materials science - is right at your desktop. You never know which lecture could spark an interest that could become a (healthy) obsession that could eventually become your career.
Perhaps you could meet an industry leader or an established academician who could become a treasured connection in the future? Perhaps that one interesting point made in the lecture could become an anecdote that’d land you a great job? The possibilities are endless.
Which brings me to my final item in this list.
5. Learn the art of networking online.
Given how we’re facing this global challenge together, it only makes sense that we should finally get out of the bubble that is our university/state/country. There’s never been a better time to expand your network.
Talk to people, people you would’ve never met otherwise. Follow interesting people on LinkedIn (surprisingly, Twitter is also excellent for this sort of thing). And for more specific tips on networking, check out our free professional development guide for MSEs.
Join communities you’re interested in, explore what other people are doing in your field, what interests them, what their stories are. Not only will this provide you with fresh perspectives on what you’d like to do in the future, but it’ll also help you gain those meaningful relationships that I mentioned earlier.
For instance, in my case, I came across networking events for the battery industry (Battery Brunch, for example) and observed fascinating conversations with people in the field. It gave me a sense of what working in this area could be like, what the current hot topics are, where this field is headed. In some way, I now had a frame of reference for my career plans.
Networking benefits you two-fold: one, you’re constantly discovering the new and exciting; two, you're constantly in touch with your interests and are distinctly aware of how they evolve. If you reach out to the right people and value their time, networking will always be rewarding.
The pandemic has upended the way we learn and the way we work. But that doesn't mean we have to wait for a chance to learn what we need to in order to succeed. Be it general skills, people skills, or materials-specific skills - there's a lot to be done, and a lot to be won. It's what we make out of it.