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Micron School of Materials Science and Engineering News

Jordan Vandegrift, M.S. Student

Jordan Vandegrift working in the lab

Jordan Vandegrift is a Master of Science student in the Micron School of Materials Science and Engineering. She’s always been a natural problem solver, even as a child. Whether constructing an igloo in her backyard or disassembling the family television to diagnose a problem, she was constantly solving puzzles. This natural affinity for creative troubleshooting influenced Jordan’s future career choice. To launch her career, she applied for admission to Eastern Oregon University where she planned to study biology. She soon learned that her true interest was engineering and, after completing her freshman year at Eastern Oregon University, returned to her hometown. She chose the Micron School of Materials Science and Engineering (MSMSE) based on the diversity and the mix of science and engineering the program offers. Based on Jordan’s accomplishments, she made a wise choice.

Jordan is an avid learner. As an undergraduate, her drive for excellence was proven with an Outstanding Junior in Materials Science and Engineering award and a Distinguished Achievement Award. She was a member of the Tau Beta Pi honor society and later served as it’s treasurer. Jordan actively participates in campus life so she can obtain the best academic experience possible. Always seeking challenging learning opportunities, she joined Dr. Darryl Butt’s research group as an undergraduate researcher. She was fascinated with the group’s projects and thrived in the lab. Now working with Dr. Brian Jaques in the Advanced Materials Laboratory as a graduate student, Jordan is focusing on understanding the high temperature behavior of zirconium alloys for use as nuclear fuel cladding in the Transient Reactor Test Facility (TREAT) at Idaho National Laboratory (INL). TREAT is an air cooled research reactor that was designed to provide a testing platform to demonstrate performance phenomena and limits for advanced and accident tolerant fuel designs under transient conditions ranging from mild upsets to severe accidents. Jordan has presented her research at several professional research conferences and her research on the oxidation of zirconium alloys at high temperatures will be submitted for publication in the Journal of Nuclear Materials.

This past summer, Jordan had an excellent opportunity to participate in a prestigious internship at Micron Technology. Working with the Technology Development Group, she helped develop atomic layer deposition precursors processes and chemical syntheses to aid in the production of state of the art memory concepts. She credits her research experience with giving her the edge in obtaining the position. “I applied for the position in 2014, but was told that I needed to get research experience first and was advised to join a research group on campus. This is what led me to apply to be an undergraduate research assistant in Dr. Butt’s group. Now, four years later, it’s come full circle and I get to expand my knowledge through this internship while pursuing my Master’s degree.” says Jordan.

Jordan’s journey to success has been fueled by her enthusiasm for learning and her desire to achieve the best. She firmly believes that being active in the Micron School of Materials Science and Engineering has been a key factor in her success. She encourages fellow students to get involved by signing up for volunteer events, joining the MSE club, and getting hands-on lab experience with one of the great faculty-led research groups. “I guarantee all of these things will help you get the most out of your time in the program,” Jordan says.

After obtaining her M.S. in Materials Science and Engineering, Jordan plans to pursue a career in industry. Her goal is to find a position that will allow her to continue conducting challenging research. She looks forward to using what she has learned at Boise State to aid in the development of new and unique research applications.

Ali Mustafa, B.S. Student

Ali Mustafa is an undergraduate student in the Micron School of Materials Science and Engineering. He already had a chemical engineering degree from the Technological University in Iraq when he applied for admission to obtain a second degree at Boise State University.

Ali was well prepared for a lucrative engineering career after obtaining his first bachelor of science degree in Iraq. He had done everything right, from maintaining good grades to getting work experience in the field. He thrived as a civilian contractor for the U.S. Air Force in Iraq for about six years. A relocation from Iraq to the United States revealed a hurdle Ali hadn’t anticipated. After moving, Ali discovered that most U.S. employers were reluctant to accept his degree from the Technological University in Iraq. This left the only option of non-engineering employment, which did not appeal to Ali. He always envisioned being an engineer so he started seeking an alternative method for reaching his goal. Ali realized that, in order to be an engineer in the U.S., he needed a degree that would be recognized by U.S. employers. Go back to school for another degree? The prospect would motivate many people to choose a different path, but Ali was not giving up on his dream.

Returning to school for a second degree meant Ali needed to choose the best major to supplement his already strong engineering background. He considered several engineering fields but was introduced to materials science and engineering through some of his first-year coursework. He also met with Dr. Amy Moll, a professor in the Micron School of Materials Science and Engineering who encouraged him to explore further.

To gain hands-on experience, Ali applied for an undergraduate research assistant position in the Magnetic Materials Research Group led by Boise State Distinguished Professor Peter Mullner. Ali collaborates with team members to grow and cast single crystals of magnetic shape memory alloys. “The hypothesis of our current research is that by increasing the thermal gradient to 200 K/mm through casting molten Ni-Mn-Ga into a heated crucible and onto a cooled seed crystal, the resulting single crystals will exhibit consistent homogeneity and repeatable functional properties. New materials like this could create less complex and more robust devices such as actuators, pumps, and linear positioning devices. The research team plans to present their work at the upcoming Idaho Conference on Undergraduate Research.

Ali is making the most of his second degree experience. “Boise State is not only where I get my education, it is my second home,” Says Ali. “Being a returning student provides some challenges but being far away from my family and friends in Iraq is one of the most challenging things I have ever experienced. I’ve made new friends and am gaining some great life experiences. My research teammates have become members of my extended family. Together we celebrate personal events and make scientific achievements. My goals are to find a job in the field of material science and to never stop learning.”

Sometimes, even with planning, life can take you in a different direction. Ali proves that, with perseverance and creative problem solving, goals can be achieved. “There is no easy way to get an engineering degree,” Ali says. “Keep fighting for your goals and find a way to love what you are studying.”

Ali recently expanded on how science collided with his life at a Story Collider event in Boise Idaho. Listen to his inspirational story to learn more.

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.