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Micron School of Materials Science and Engineering News

Steve Johns, Ph.D. Student – First Place Best Poster Awardee NuMat 2018

Steve Johns working in the BSCMC

Steve Johns, graduate student in the Micron School of Materials Science and Engineering has recently received a first place – best poster award, and a cash prize at the 5th biennial Nuclear Materials Conference (NuMat 2018) in Seattle. Research presented, titled Microstructural Response of Nuclear Graphite During In-situ Heating and Electron Irradiation, reports the discovery of new mechanisms responsible for irradiation induced dimensional changes in graphite at higher temperatures via the formation of fullerenes and other carbon nanoforms. This work has also been accepted for publication in the journal CARBON.

Working with Dr. Rick Ubic in the Functional Ceramics Research Group and Dr. Karthik Chinnathambi at the Boise State Center for Materials Characterization (BSCMC), Steve has had great opportunities to conduct specialized research and work with a team of colleagues on several important initiatives. In fact, Steve has already published a research paper entitled “A new oxidation based technique for artifact free TEM specimen preparation of nuclear graphite” [S. Johns, W. Shin, J.J. Kane, W.E. Windes, R. Ubic, C. Karthik, A new oxidation based technique for artifact free TEM specimen preparation of nuclear graphite, J. Nucl. Mater. 505 (2018) 62–68, doi:10.1016/j.jnucmat.2018.03.058.] as the first author in the Journal of Nuclear Materials.

Steven Johns, Materials Science and EngineeringImpressed with Steve’s accomplishments, we asked him to tell us about his path to success. Steve already had a career as a successful residential and commercial construction worker before he enrolled in the Ph.D. Program. He worked his way up to lead foreman and held that position for six years. Even so, he recognized that this type of work would continue to provide a harsh and laborious environment. He also experienced an unsettled economy and seasonal conditions that made construction a less reliable career than he thought. He decided to leave the construction industry and pursue a degree in engineering.

Steve started his education as a civil engineering major, thinking his prior construction experience would complement his studies. Early in his academic career, Steve attended a guest lecture on shape memory alloys given by Dr. Peter Mullner, Boise State University distinguished professor. He was fascinated and intrigued by how materials could be engineered at the atomic level. Dr. Mullner’s presentation led Steve to change his major to materials science and engineering, where he continues to make great strides in research and education.

Steve’s research deals exclusively with nuclear graphite, which is commonly used as a moderating material as well as a key structural component in nuclear reactor designs. Graphite accumulates irradiation damage when used in reactors over time. During irradiation, significant changes to the crystalline structure of graphite occurs. These changes adversely affect the mechanical properties of nuclear graphite, resulting in less optimal performance. Accurately predicting a component’s in-service lifetime can be challenging. It is difficult to monitor the dynamic response of graphite during irradiation at the atomic level. In situ monitoring of the atomic level response of graphite in nuclear reactors remains impossible; however, in situ transmission electron microscopy (TEM), offers a way to monitor this process. TEM utilizes a beam of high energy electrons which is transmitted through a specimen to form an image. In the case of graphite, these high-energy electrons readily displace carbon atoms which results in irradiation damage to the graphite structure that is arguably comparable to irradiation damage from neutrons found in nuclear reactors. As such, one may observe the atomic level response of graphite when subjected to irradiation ‘live time’ with the use of a TEM.   

Steve first experienced electron microscopy as an undergraduate at Boise State. He was introduced to this technique while working with Dr. Mike Hurley, assistant professor.  “I am forever grateful to Dr. Hurley’s research group for providing me the opportunity to be trained on this characterization technique. This greatly influenced my decision to accept an offer conducting TEM studies on nuclear graphite for my Ph.D. research, working alongside Dr. Karthik Chinnathambi at the BSCMC. Steve’s research is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s EPSCoR national laboratory partnership program. Steve actively collaborates with partner scientists from the Idaho National Laboratory. He has performed TEM experiments at the IVEM-Tandem facility at the Argonne National Laboratory and soon will be visiting the National Electron Microscopy Center (NCEM) at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Continuing my education has changed my life and has created opportunities I never thought possible,” Steve says.

Life certainly can change. Steve quotes Seneca when reflecting on how his life has changed: “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” Steve suggests that we all make our own luck, and to be proactive in doing so. Returning to school after a career in construction and learning an entirely new field might seem challenging. It is. Life goes on and people, like Steve, have families and other responsibilities that become top priorities. Steve proves that one can reach for new career opportunities at any time in life. As a bonus, he has a great opportunity to set an example for his children. “I would like to believe my display of hard work and determination, which has resulted in success, has influenced and played a role in my children’s lives. Both of my children excel in their studies and are amazing at anything they put their minds to,” says Steve.

Finding a job that involves electron microscopy and conducting research with a TEM would be Steve’s dream job. Based on his academic success, this dream can, and will, become Steve’s reality.



Graduate Student – Jennifer Watkins

Jennifer Watkins working in the SSL Lab

Jennifer Watkins is a Ph.D. student in the Micron School of Materials Science and Engineering (MSMSE). She is a local Idaho resident who was born and raised in the beautiful Treasure Valley. Growing up in a rural area outside Boise, Jennifer was involved in 4-H and enjoyed the abundance of outdoor activities found all over Idaho. Jennifer was also an avid reader. In fact, she discovered science through reading and aspired to become a medical doctor.

The Path to Materials Science and Engineering

Following high school, Jennifer spent several years in a finance career. She aspired to work in a field where she could make a difference for the environment so she explored learning opportunities at Boise State University. Jennifer met with MSMSE professor and former College of Engineering dean, Amy Moll, during one of her campus visits. “Dr. Moll’s enthusiasm for materials science helped me understand what this degree offers. Her welcoming demeanor really propelled me into the discipline,” Jennifer says as she reflects on the interaction that changed her life.

Jennifer applied for admission to the undergraduate program in materials science and engineering and immersed herself in the discipline. She has been involved in research in the Advanced Materials Lab (AML) since 2014, initially working with Dr. Darryl Butt. Jennifer’s early research involved the characterization and microanalysis of an ancient pigment particle from an Egyptian mummy portrait. She also worked on characterization and analysis to determine the provenance of a human skull that was recovered in rural Idaho, which resulted in her first peer-reviewed publication.

Jennifer graduated cum laude in 2016 with a Bachelor of Science in Materials Science and Engineering and a minor in Physics. She wanted to continue expanding research opportunities so she applied for the Ph.D. in Materials Science and Engineering at Boise State. As a graduate research assistant, Jennifer is conducting research on the synthesis, characterization, and performance testing of accident tolerant fuels for current and advanced nuclear reactors under the direction of Dr. Brian Jaques. In addition, Jennifer worked on a project with NASA involving fabrication of capacitive-based flexible strain gauges. She presented her research at the Wearable Technology Symposium at Johnson Space Center.

Fellowships Create Opportunities

Jennifer was recently one of only thirty-one students nationwide who were awarded a prestigious 3 year, $150,000, Department of Energy Integrated University Program Graduate Fellowship. Fellows participate in internships at various national laboratories, gain hands-on work experience, and report on their research annually. Jennifer is continuing her accident tolerant nuclear fuels research by interning in the Materials and Fuels Complex Fuel Fabrication and Development Department at the Idaho National Laboratory. She was well prepared to succeed thanks to her research experience at Boise State. In her first few weeks, Jennifer assisted with the setup of instruments and facilities to fabricate U3Si2, an accident tolerant nuclear fuel form, which will be inserted into the first lead test rods of its kind for a commercial nuclear reactor. In addition to fabrication and setup, Jennifer is also researching the effects of phase and microstructure on the mechanical properties of U3Si2 fuel pellets. Jennifer is gaining valuable experience at one of the nation’s leading nuclear science and technology laboratories. She is also learning from and collaborating with prominent scientists in the nuclear community.

Opportunities like this often lead to new experiences. Jennifer recently learned that she is the recipient of an Idaho National Laboratory (INL) Graduate Fellowship. The program is a collaboration between INL and various universities to provide mentoring and financial support for outstanding students who are enrolled in a graduate degree program. Fellows conduct research on-site at INL while earning their degree. This opportunity will allow Jennifer to finish her required graduate coursework at Boise State and then transition to INL to perform research, guided by her university and INL technical advisors, during the final years of her Ph.D. program. She plans to continue her work on optimizing synthesis and manufacturing methods for U3Si2 while also exploring pathways to increase the oxidation and water corrosion resistance of U3Si2.

Ready for Success

Jennifer is grateful for the life changing opportunities she continues to encounter in the Micron School of Materials Science and Engineering. “No other engineering discipline exposes you to as much diversity in career and research options as materials science and engineering,” says Jennifer. “The opportunities are unparalleled. Students interested in making important contributions to solving technological challenges should really consider furthering their education in materials science and engineering.” Jennifer’s future career prospects are promising. By gaining research experience early in her academic career, Jennifer is well prepared to succeed in the nuclear industry where she plans to continue researching alternatives to fossil fuels, specifically in nuclear energy.

Dr. Lan Li – Collaborations with Idaho National Laboratory Pave the Way to Energy Innovation

Dr. Lan Li

Dr. Lan Li, is an assistant professor in the Micron School of Materials Science and Engineering. She is leading several projects in collaboration with the Idaho National Lab (INL) through the Center for Advanced Energy Studies (CAES,) a public research center focused on collaboration that inspires innovation, fueling energy transitions, and economic growth for the future.

Partnering with CAES allows Boise State researchers to team with INL and other Idaho universities to improve security and quality of life through advanced energy and environmental technology research. One of the current collaborative projects is the In-Pile Instrumentation Initiative. A goal of this initiative is to create and test advanced sensors that can reliably deliver data from inside the extreme environment of a nuclear reactor.

Energy Efficiency through Computational Modeling

Dr. Li’s materials theory and modeling research group uses computational modeling to accelerate the development of new materials for electronic and energy applications. Computer generated models provide a unique opportunity to study the behavior of a material, often on the scale of individual atoms, allowing researchers a powerful view of a material’s structure and potential for use. Researchers can use this data to strategize in-laboratory experimentation, expedite results, and reduce the cost of research and development.

One of the In-Pile Initiative challenges is to design a thermocouple – an electrical device consisting of two dissimilar metal wires, joined at one end. It produces a temperature-dependent voltage as a result of the thermoelectric effect. The voltage can be interpreted as a sensor for measuring temperature. Dr. Li’s team uses computational modeling to predict how various thermocouple elements might respond to extreme environments. The goal is to design a thermocouple that can withstand high temperatures and radiation while maintaining device performance. In analyzing potential materials and designs, Dr. Li also works with other researchers who are experimenting with optical fibers as another potential sensor material. Through modeling, they are identifying designs for specific optical fibers that could meet the performance requirements necessary for use in nuclear reactors.

Computational modeling is also being used to customize the structures and properties of materials for printed in-pile sensor devices. Dr. Li is coupling atomic and microstructure modeling to reveal how specific elements interact during the printing process. This multi-scale modeling approach helps determine how well a device such as a thermocouple, neutron flux foil, or melt wire will perform in an environment where high temperatures, corrosion, pressure, and fission gas can destroy most devices.

Collaborations with the Idaho National Laboratory and the Center for Advanced Energy Studies allow researchers across Idaho’s universities to combine their expertise to find solutions to enhance clean energy. “The sensor projects with INL and CAES leverage my group’s expertise in computational modeling. We are coupling our own developed computational models with INL’s developed nuclear fuel performance codes such as MARMOT phase field and BISON finite element codes,” says Dr. Li. “Partnering in this manner strengthens our nuclear materials and system research abilities. I am pleased to have the opportunity to work with several other Micron School of Materials Science and Engineering faculty to continue our partnership with INL to help meet the world’s energy demands.”

About Lan Li

Dr. Li received her doctorate in Nanomaterials from the University of Cambridge in the UK.  She has a wide range of experience in academia and national laboratories, including at the Bio-Nano Electronic Research Center at Toyo University in Japan, the Center for Materials Informatics at Kent State University, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. She has worked with various national labs and universities on the development of computational materials research coding projects. She is especially focused on transforming these types of research codes into teaching modules suitable for undergraduate education. Dr. Li’s work on energy and sustainability has been recognized with senior fellowships awarded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act Program and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. She has been a chief editor for three books on energy, sustainability, and the environment. Dr. Li currently serves as a member of the The Minerals, Metals, and Materials Society (TMS) Integrated Computational Materials Engineering Committee.

Rebecca Ahern – Bachelor of Science Alum 2009

Rebecca Ahern

Rebecca Ahern is a Micron School of Materials Science and Engineering (MSMSE) alum. She graduated from Boise State in 2009 with a bachelor of science in materials science and engineering and now works for Boeing in Washington state. Rebecca credits her Boise State experience as a guiding influence in reaching her career goals.

Opening Doors to Success

“My experience at Boise State had many direct effects on my career and life,” says Rebecca. “Involvement in student organizations helped launch my career path.” By actively participating as a member of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) and the Material Advantage Student Program, she learned that a degree in materials science and engineering opens doors to a variety of great career opportunities. Rebecca was invited to interview for an internship at Boeing through SWE. Her interest in the aerospace field was fueled further by hearing industry members speak at on-campus seminars. Dr. Diane Chong, now retired vice president of research and technology in the Boeing Engineering, Operations, and Technology organization was one of the industry influencers Rebecca was fortunate to have met during a campus visit. Dr. Chong’s presentation on materials selection for the Boeing 787 aircraft resonated with Rebecca. “I have no doubt that my interactions with Dr. Chong directly influenced the rest of my career.”

Finding a Career Trajectory

A few years have passed since Rebecca’s first internship at Boeing. Following this great opportunity to explore Boeing, Rebecca was sure she wanted to pursue a career in the aerospace industry. In fact, her first position after graduating from Boise State was with Boeing, at NASA Marshall Space Flight Center. In this position, Rebecca worked on friction stir welding of aluminum lithium alloys for cryogenic fuel tanks for rockets. Some of the equipment she helped qualify will be producing tanks for the space launch system at NASA Michoud Assembly Facility. Since then, she has remained at Boeing where she continues to thrive. “There are so many different opportunities at Boeing and it is a great place to work,” Rebecca noted.  She currently works as a bearings and wear technology engineer supporting the design and manufacturing of the new Boeing 777X aircraft. A routine work day involves drawing reviews, communicating with suppliers, troubleshooting manufacturing issues, and consulting on new design options. Specifically, Rebecca has focused on material selection and design for the folding wing tip hinge and locking features. She has also been involved in the overall design for anything from the flaps, horizontal pivot bearing, engine mounts, landing gear, stowbin fittings, and even a heads up display unit in the cockpit. Prior to the 777X project, Rebecca worked on standards development and qualification for bearings and was also involved in research and development for new wear materials.

Making an Impact

“My journey to a bachelor’s degree helped me identify a lucrative career path,” Rebecca says. “The Micron School of Materials Science and Engineering really focuses on student success and involvement in the materials research community. I had the fantastic opportunity to attend The Minerals, Metals, and Materials Society (TMS) annual meeting in New Orleans with several students and faculty during my time at Boise State. That was a trip to remember.” Looking back on her Boise State experience, Rebecca acknowledges the importance of being involved in extracurricular activities that support success. She especially enjoyed volunteering for outreach activities such as engineering camps and demonstration days. “Making an impact with the next generation has always been important to me. I still mentor and volunteer at university of Washington,” Rebecca notes. She continues her mission to promote materials science and engineering by serving as the chair of the Puget Sound chapter of ASM International.

“I had already chosen engineering as my field of study when I came to Boise State but I really wanted to further my education in physics and chemistry as well as engineering,” Rebecca says. “Amy Moll convinced me that materials science and engineering was the career path for me, I mean, she’s Amy Moll! Because materials science and engineering includes elements of physics, chemistry, and engineering, I was able to remain in all of those fields.” On top of her already challenging schedule of classes and professional development activity, Rebecca played the baritone horn in Boise State’s Keith Stein Blue Thunder Marching Band and in the All-Campus Concert Band. She was a member of Kappa Kappa Psi, the honorary band organization. She also gained some hands-on engineering experience with the Boise State AeroDesign Team that builds unmanned, remote-controlled aircraft for competition.

Rebecca’s career path seems idyllic. It might even seem perfect to most aspiring graduates. Rebecca acknowledges that her success is the result of hard work, active participation. “I highly recommend that students take advantage of the unique opportunities around them in the Micron School of Materials Science and Engineering. Doing so will give them a significant edge in their careers and lives.”

Undergraduate Student Yaiza Rodriguez

Yaiza RodriguezYaiza Rodriguez was raised in the small city of Esplugues de Llobregat, Barcelona. Growing up, she enjoyed participating in sports and specialized in basketball. She was also an avid gamer. Yaiza’s father introduced her to the world of technology through his work in computer repairs. He had an extensive collection of technology magazines that Yaiza spent countless hours exploring. She also watched with curiosity as her father dismantled, repaired, and assembled a variety of computer systems on a daily basis. It is not surprising that Yaiza was interested in continuing her education in a related field where she could use technology to transform the future.


Excellence in Academics and Athletics

With a broad career goal of making the world a better place, Yaiza knew a college degree would contribute significantly to her success. She also knew she wanted to continue playing basketball, a sport in which she excelled. In fact, Basketball was how Yaiza discovered Boise State University. She was a top recruit who had won three gold medals in championship tournaments in Europe. Yaiza was offered a full scholarship to play on the Boise State Women’s Basketball team. Thrilled to accept the basketball scholarship, Yaiza planned to major in chemical engineering but did not find it as an option at Boise State. After meeting with great advisors in the College of Engineering Advising Center, Yaiza found that what she really wanted was a major that combined her interests in chemistry, physics, and math. Materials Science and Engineering was a perfect match. “I decided to try Materials Science and I ended up loving it,” Yaiza reported.

For many student athletes, an engineering curriculum can be challenging. Team obligations are time consuming and engineering requires some advanced concepts in chemistry, physics, and math. To coordinate a challenging athletic schedule and complex field of study, Yaiza strategized. She intentionally got involved in research after she had much of her coursework completed and toward the end of her basketball scholarship. Planning her Boise State experience allowed Yaiza to excel in academics and basketball simultaneously. In fact, through hard work and dedication Yaiza even earned two minors in her other fields of interest: mathematics and physics, all while participating in daily basketball practices, tournaments, and team activities. During her time on the team, Boise State won two Conference Tournaments and appeared twice in the NCAA Tournament playing against Tennessee and UCLA. Yaiza was a solid team asset. She broke the University’s records in single season assists (192 assists) and carrier assists (a total of 616 assists) and received the Academic All-Mountain West award all four years of her Boise State basketball career.

Green Energy Research

Following her dynamic basketball experience and just as she had planned, Yaiza now conducts research in the Advanced Materials Laboratory with Dr. Brian Jaques. She works on a project focused on heat exchangers in collaboration with Hifunda, LLC, who develops and commercializes materials and systems with the goal of bringing better, smarter, safer, environmentally-friendly, and energy-efficient technology solutions to market. The challenge is to develop a joining mechanism to bond ceramic to metal that will withstand multiple heating and cooling cycles. “Being an undergraduate researcher has given me many great opportunities and priceless experience. I love Boise and the culture of the Micron School of Materials Science and Engineering,” Yaiza said. “As a student athlete, much of my time was spent with my team and keeping up on coursework. Now that I am able to gain hands-on research experience, I have countless opportunities to challenge myself in different ways and contribute to a field that can change the world.”

Transforming the Future

Yaiza graduated in May, happy to have earned a Bachelor of Science in Materials Science and Engineering and proud to have been a part of Boise State athletics. She plans to continue her education at Boise State with a graduate degree in materials science and engineering. Her interests include renewable energy solutions and the aerospace industry. She plans to have a challenging career discovering ways to extend the lifespan of energy storage devices or to identify more eco-friendly and cost-effective ways to store energy. She may even work in the aerospace industry where she would like to focus on improving fuel efficiency. Ultimately for Yaiza, it is all about transforming the future and making the world a better place.