How to Make a Career Move to Smart Materials

Biomedicine, consumer electronics, and robotics will benefit from advances

4 May 2018

What makes a material smart? Simply put, it has properties that respond to its environment. It can sense what’s around it, collect and send data about what it finds, and even perform a task based on the information it collects.

Smart materials might one day, for example, be ingested to regulate glucose in blood or diagnose disease. Or they might be integrated in a smartphone to give the visually impaired a better idea of what is displayed on videos and images through haptics.

Because the materials currently available are not smart enough for such applications just yet, engineers are in demand, according to IEEE Senior Member Nazanin Bassiri-Gharb, director of the Smart Materials’ Advanced Research and Technology (SMART) Lab at Georgia Tech University, in Atlanta. She’s also president of the IEEE Ultrasonics, Ferroelectrics, and Frequency Control Society.

 Companies including Apple, General Electric, and SpaceX are hiring students from Bassiri-Gharb’s lab either to work in R&D to develop smart materials or to incorporate them into existing products.

“Nearly every tech giant is investing in research in these areas or integrating smart materials in the design of the next generation of their technologies,” she says.

AREAS OF INTEREST

The field of smart materials ties into every engineering discipline, Bassiri-Gharb notes, and would-be entrants should find an area that interests them, if not one in which they are already adept.

Growing up, she wanted to be a doctor. But she became fascinated by biomedical engineering after her father had surgery to repair a broken arm. The surgeons implanted titanium parts, which can be harmful to some patients.

While the materials Bassiri-Gharb works on at the SMART Lab are not devoid of toxic substances, the researchers are trying to develop alternatives that could be better integrated into the body without damage.

If, like her, you’re interested in biomedical engineering, learn what smart-material applications the field needs. An example she cited, shape-memory polymers, can mimic muscles and can change shape based on an external stimulus such as a change in temperature, pressure, or electric field.

Smart materials are used in many sensors and health-monitoring devices already on the market.

If your interest is robotics, you might work at providing androids with tactile senses. Smart materials added to their fingertips could help them sense if they’re picking up a cup made of glass or paper, and determine how much force to apply, Bassiri-Gharb explains. Another application is for millimeter-size robots, which can maneuver in various environments and gauge their surroundings. They could one day become tiny enough to be injected into patients to monitor their health and inconspicuous enough to be used in military applications.

HOW TO BREAK IN

To get your feet wet in the industry, Bassiri-Gharb recommends finding organizations working on smart materials for applications you’re interested in, and volunteering your time. Many academic labs would be willing to train a newcomer and invest in you, as long as you are there to learn and contribute.

Bassiri-Gharb mentored a high school student who was experimenting with smart materials at home. “The student showed me she had the interest,” she says, “so we helped get her real-world experience at our lab.”

She also suggests searching for online courses, webinars, and videos to learn as much as you can about the field. Many conferences, she notes, make presentations and lectures available to the general public after some time on YouTube. Some universities offer lectures as part of free online courses on sites such as Audacity, Coursera, and edX.

Almost every engineering program offers at least an introductory course in materials, Bassiri-Gharb says. To break into the field, gather as much knowledge as you can, whether you pursue a degree or study on your own, she recommends. Or you could introduce smart materials into the work you’re already doing or partner with another group working with smart materials on a similar application. Those who get a job in the field will develop materials they once thought were unimaginable, Bassiri-Gharb says.

“There is no reason why every engineer shouldn’t be working with smart materials,” she says. “It comes down to ingenuity and being creative in how new generations of these materials can be developed and applied.”

IEEE RESOURCES

The IEEE Smart Materials portal has several resources to help people who want to learn more. One is the free webinar Modeling Piezoelectric Devices, which covers their role in microelectronics and sensors. In the Smart Fabrics and Interactive Textile course, you can learn about recent developments along with device design and system configurations. The price for the course is US $80 for members; $160 for nonmembers.

Or you can join an IEEE Standards Association working group, like the one for 3D body processing. It’s focused on wearables for health, fitness, and medical applications. The Nanoscale and Molecular Communications working group is developing standards for smart materials for internal use. There are also a host of conferences that will address the subject.

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