The Difference Between Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science and Engineering

Written By: Sai Smaran

My curiosity with materials sparked when I first interacted with a touchscreen phone back in 2006. I still remember the name of the brand: O2. At that time, I couldn’t access the internet to figure out why the screen responded to the touch of that stylus. For me it felt like something magical.

I was almost curious about anything and everything I saw. I used to ask a lot of questions to my parents and relatives (which sometimes used to irritate them). I enjoyed seeing the growth in technology from CRT-based personal computers to today's high performing quantum computers. I realized that these advanced technologies involve not only the integration of physics and math but also one’s imagination. It was with this amazement that I opted for mechanical engineering for my undergraduate studies.

I wanted to use my undergraduate years to explore and find out “that one thing” that interests me the most. I used to go out and explore opportunities in and around the campus of PES university in Bangalore to see what I liked to work on. I have been a very small part of teams that designed race cars, RC aircrafts and even nano satellites.

So, during my sophomore year, I observed a drastic turnover of conventional engineering sciences into sustainable and clean forms. I wondered how electric vehicles could be safer for the environment given that the electricity for their batteries was still being produced by burning fossil fuels. Such questions kindled my passion to learn more and research on solar and wind energy.

After spending a considerable amount of time learning about wind energy, I had an urge to learn more about solar energy and the physics behind solar materials. The Computational Material Science course during my junior year introduced me to Density Functional Theory (DFT). This very course made me decide I need to transition from a mechanical discipline to materials science. The power to learn how materials behave at an atomic level and knowing we have the freedom to modify it based on our necessity is all I needed to make that decision.

There have been few instances which made me think that I was more interested in pursuing Materials Science rather than Mechanical Engineering. There are fundamentally 4 major domains in Mechanical Engineering.

1. Design

2. Manufacturing

3. Automobile

4. Aerospace

And I was completely interested in none of them. I just liked the physics and mechanics in all of them. Clearly pursuing a master’s degree in Mechanical Engineering would include all the above domains. I wanted something that relates to basic physics and materials. Also, many courses and research projects in Mechanical Engineering, especially the ones involving thermal sciences, are “heavy duty.” They really test your calculus skills and are hectic to pursue, timewise. I was definitely not up for that. Materials Science was a perfect solution for all of that. All the instances kind of built upon and made me decide that MSE was the better choice than ME.

This fall, I shall be starting at Duke University to pursue my MS in MatSci and I shall be a working in Dr. Olivier Delaire’s group at Duke which works on a range of materials to study their atomic dynamics.

Some things that I have learnt and realized in this journey of mine which might be of help.

1. Never curb your curiosity. It's a cure to boredom.

2. Develop first principle thinking. Start to question everything from a fundamental level. That is the beginning of learning.

3. Never Memorize. Instead have a strong understanding which helps you derive anything

For international students trying to pursue their education in MSE, I have 4 things for you.

1. You have chosen one of the most fundamental sciences to study.

2. Never compromise for anything. You miss all the chances you don’t take.

3. While deciding upon the research project, choose the one which has a more personal impact on you. Try and solve that.

4. Do not take anything too seriously. Have fun. The journey is more important than the destination.

Pura Vida,


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