Life Lessons From One Materials Science and Engineering Student to Another

Written By: Nicholas Etrick

Hello, It’s a Material World community! My name is Nick, and I am here today on this blog to share some of my insight into the field of Materials Science & Engineering using my thoughts, ideas, and past experiences, that I believe could be of assistance to anybody interested in connecting the dots in regard to learning more about all the exciting opportunities that this field has to offer.

First off, I recognize that I was very fortunate to have been born on the Space Coast of Florida during a time when spaceflight and shuttle launches were very common. I can remember many days during my childhood when there would be an announcement for a new shuttle launch on the news, and I would rush outside to see that little flaming orange ball (shuttle) propel through the skies with grace and ease. After being mesmerized by enough of these launches, I was deeply inspired, and knew that I had to get involved in any way that I could even though I didn’t have the slightest idea of how.

My first science fair project dealt with the effects of different soda acidity (Fanta, Coca Cola, Pepsi.. etc. on the dissolution rate of chicken bones)… which then increased my interest even more, eventually leading to participating in the honors science fair in my middle school, as well as being introduced to a Professor at my local university, the Florida Institute of Technology, by my AP Chemistry teacher. This experience was particularly foundational as this was the first time I was in a university-setting research laboratory conducting density functional and molecular orbital theory calculations, as well as operating a scanning tunneling microscope. After winning my regional science fair, I went on to place 2nd at the Florida State Science Fair and first started to realize that I could translate research into a primary interest.

When I got the chance to attend the University of Florida (Go Gators!), I knew that I wanted to major in a STEM discipline, but (as the 1st year of college tends to be) the transition to the University and choice of major was anything but straightforward. When you throw an 18-year-old suburban kid into the mix of this young and vibrant campus community, along with the many haphazard experiences of freshman year such as: moving out on your own, living independently, making important choices on your own, and even failing your very first exam of college (I got 7/20 questions correct on my first exam in Physics I), you can feel quite the range of emotions. Regardless, what really pulled me through the first two semesters was my honors community, roommates, and friends. After feeling defeated and lost changing my major 4 times - from Computer Engineering, to Electrical Engineering, to Chemical Engineering, to Biomedical Engineering, I one day took a wrong turn down toward the Student Union and entered “Rhines Hall,” UF’s Materials Science & Engineering building. After seeing the microscopy images on the wall of the building, and all of the exciting equipment and laboratories, I was enamored and immediately went to see my academic advisor the next day to inquire more.

Within days, I had found my bread and butter – Materials Science & Engineering was exactly what I had been looking for all along. It was hiding from plain sight, as the major is traditionally an oversight compared to core traditional majors and curricula, but once I ventured into the field, the fire and excitement was lit deeply inside.

My first research experience in MSE was disheartening – I hated the research I was doing and was anxious from the get-go. How was I expected to accomplish these tasks that seemed overbearing?

Eventually, I would come to realize that my advisor and I didn’t see heart to heart. This is a core lesson that I have always taken with me throughout my career.

I attended a Material Advantage meeting luncheon with my primary undergraduate advisor, Dr. Michele Manuel, and followed her to her office after the lunch, inquiring about joining her research group. She had suggested other faculty to work with as she was taking on additional duties (becoming the department chair), but I was persistent. Fortunately, I joined the group to work on a quaternary alloy system, AlFeSi-x, for lightweight automotive applications. Although the research was exciting and important, the mentorship that I received under Dr. Manuel was something I had never experienced before. I credit this advisor-advisee relationship as the critical foundation underpinning my entire career.

Before I knew it, I was very incredibly fortunate to attend build up some experience outside of the University, first at Northrop Grumman (a defense company), a summer REU research internship at Cornell University, an internship at NASA Langley in Hampton, VA, as well as working at a Stanford/Menlo Park start-up company in the Bay Area, CA. (Feel free to check out the Free MSE Professional Development Guide for your job search!)

Each of these experiences built upon one another, and I really tried to push myself outside of my comfort zone and maximize my resources with each internship and circumstance.

At Northrop Grumman, I was tasked on a project dealing with the E-2D Hawkeye advanced aircraft, as well as learning critically about the nuances of the defense and aerospace industry in a corporate engineering setting.

At Cornell University, I was exposed to my first research experience outside of the typical local-university setting, understanding how my materials and polymer science knowledge could contribute to working on lightweight insect-repellant fabrics that would directly impact the global scientific community as well as benefit underserved indigenous communities (such as in Africa) with its application.

At NASA Langley, I was exposed to working in a research environment at a NASA facility, and collaborating with numerous NASA engineers on wind tunnel studies, by looking into functionalizing small polystyrene microspheres for reducing contamination (fouling) on wind tunnel surfaces, which reduces downtime and provides significant cost savings and error during aerodynamic testing.

At the Stanford/Menlo Park start-up facility, I was given the opportunity to see the duality between academic research and theory, and then its application in a fast-paced start-up environment that ultimately succeeded in deploying the renewable energy technology as supplements to the large grid infrastructure.

However, it would be one thing if I had just done the internships passively, adding the experiences to the back pocket of my resume. Instead, the key ingredient was for me to be creative and push the boundaries of what I thought was possible out of every opportunity that I have been given.

This has led me to attending conferences in Columbus, OH (MS&T), Boston, MA & Phoenix, AZ (MRS), Rice University, and others on a whim- even winning awards for my poster and talks at some conferences. Additionally, I have served on the student committees in some of the societies, such as MRS.

At UF, I attended every “outside of class” event that my advisor invited me to (dinners, meeting with faculty for review, etc.) and even combined undergraduate and graduate societies to create UF Material Advantage (the core club for UF MSE today), as well initiating our very first MSE career showcase.

I have even been so fortunate to have met with Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, while walking in Palo Alto Downtown during my internship in the Bay Area, as well as meet with the iconic Katherine Johnson, when I was at NASA, the famous “Hidden Figures” Black Female NASA Engineer who calculated critical launch trajectories for the Mercury, Apollo, and Gemini missions.

These exciting experiences didn’t magically appear, but rather they were born out of hard-work, excitement, risk-taking, creativity, and passion.

Now, I reside in Ann Arbor, MI at the University of Michigan working on my PhD under the guidance of Dr. Amit Misra, a fellow of Los Alamos National Laboratory, and renown researcher in the field of structural metallic thin film materials for extreme environments (nuclear) applications.

In addition to my graduate and materials science work, I am taking a Science, Technology, and Public Policy, as well as Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion certificate, because I strongly believe that activism and fighting for equal rights is so important in society today – and the work is never over. Time and time again, it has been shown that we must fight for the rights of African Americans, LGBTQIA+, Women, Latin Americans, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, Middle Eastern and North African Americans, Disabled, and all other historically underrepresented groups, who deserve a seat at the table – and have shown to increase innovation, productivity, and creativity of groups and organizations as a result.

Looking back on my life, I can genuinely say that I am so grateful to be where I am at today because this life that I am living now has not come without its share of doubts, hardship, uncertainties, and fear, but rather it was trusting in the version of myself that can best serve those in the Materials Science & Engineering community which gives me the strength and fortitude to get through the tough days. When I use my network to connect a student with a full-time opportunity, mentor an undergraduate and suggest a research group to join and open the door for others (as have been opened for me) – these are the experiences that I value the most. By using all the resources that I have amassed for the greater good, to produce and maximize the potential in those that I mentor, is the greatest gift that I can think of.

A few important life lessons that I have learned along the way include:

  • Be persistent, resilient, and never give up

  • Never underestimate the power of a great mentor

  • Never underestimate the power of a great community

  • Never underestimate the power of purpose, passion, and creativity

  • Never set any limitations on what you can achieve – the possibilities are endless

  • Always be actively engaged in what you are doing – maximize your opportunities

  • Always be grateful for your opportunities and make sure to work hard to give back to others

  • Have fun – get excited – live in the moment – partake in adventure - along the way

Be your best self – regardless of if that version is popular or not – you know exactly who you are – stand by your individuality and uniqueness because the world needs more of YOU