Mark Miodownik on the future of materials science
Mark Miodownik, Professor of Materials and Society at University College London, and Director of the Institute of Making, talks to Ellis Davies about his career and the future of materials science.
Tell me about yourself and your career
I did an undergraduate degree in materials science at the University of Oxford, UK, and then took on a PhD in jet engine alloys. After this, I moved to the USA and worked at Sandia National Laboratory. Next I took a job at University College Dublin, Ireland, as a fellow, followed by a move to Kings College London, UK, as a lecturer – my first permanent position. Finally I became a professor at University College London (UCL), UK, around six years ago.
I started with jet engine alloys and metals, understanding the micro structural processes by doing modelling and simulation experiments. When I got to Kings, I took the opportunity to broaden my subject, and as a result have done a lot of work on biological systems, what I would call animate matter – how animate systems build materials. This got me into self-healing materials, which is an area I still work in.
Also at Kings, I began to think that materials science was very isolated from the arts and humanities, and it troubled me that we were very integrated with telecoms and aerospace but were ignoring architecture, design and the cultural world, which seems crazy as they all rely on, and are influenced by, materials. So I built something called Materials Library, and over time it became the Institute of Making, UK, which takes on multidisciplinary projects that cross boundaries often ignored by materials scientists.
I am also very passionate about more materials scientists getting involved with the environmental impact of plastics and moving to a circular economy of plastics. I think the materials science and engineering communities are going to be pivotal, and we all need to get involved.
What would be your professional highlight?
My work in supporting multidisciplinary projects. As soon as I got into that I realised that there is an enormous appetite in the arts to connect with materials science. The 20th Century saw the specialisation of materials science, but ignored its involvement in the arts, which was a great loss to society, and I therefore relish those projects as they can have so much benefit and are so interesting. They tell you that materials properties, which are interesting and useful, are not just mechanical or electrical, but can be sensual and aesthetic. In the future, if I have one ambition it would be that all materials science departments in the world would teach this aspect as well as the technological side.
Where did your interest in materials science come from?
I was stabbed when I was 15, which was quite a significant moment in my life. The event got me interested in materials, mainly steel and knives, and my interest just developed from there.
How do you feel about the receipt of your MBE in the New Year’s Honours list?
It was a big surprise – I think anyone who gets those sorts of awards that is in a very supportive environment, like I am, can feel like there are other people, such as charity workers or nurses, that deserve it more. I’m lucky enough to do a job I love, but to get an MBE for doing that seems like the cream on the cake.
Could you tell me about your Faraday Medal?
Faraday is a great inspiration to anyone that wants to get out and talk to the public about their work. He really was the person in this country, and maybe worldwide, that did the most to push that as a normal part of a scientist’s life, and did it so well. Obviously, an award and lecture named after him is a great thing – and it being the Royal Society, which is the premier scientific association in the world, is a great accolade.
I spent the last 10 years really trying to get materials science recognised in the public eye at the same level as physics, chemistry or biology – name recognition for the subject was my aim, and that people would understand what materials scientists and engineers do. I’ve spent the time saying yes to radio programmes, newspapers and TV, which takes time away from the lab, and so you wonder sometimes why you’re doing it – but after doing it for so long I can see that it has made a change. I think that’s what the Faraday Medal recognised – I have taken materials science from relative obscurity to a place of greater recognition as a subject area, and to being thought of as an area that talented people will study. I sometimes get emails from people studying the subject who say that they’re doing so because of a TV programme I had a part in or a book I wrote, and that really means a lot.
What can be done to spread the subject of materials science?
What I find really heartening is that the next generation of materials scientists, from the PhD students and post-docs that I see, is that they are already better than I am – and there’s loads of them. The talent coming through is excellent – not just in science, but in their ability to communicate and be engaging and funny. I think the subject is in very good hands. You just have to get out there – the more people are seen to be pursuing materials science, the healthier it will be. There’s no shortcut, but it’s in good shape.
How important is government support in this?
I think what the government could do to help materials science in particular is to scrap A-levels. That is the one thing I feel really gets in the way. Materials are a broad discipline – you need to understand biology, art, design, manufacturing and physics. The broader the understanding you have for the world and the way things are made, the better materials scientist you’ll be. I think that by having to specialise so early, at A-levels, is damaging for everyone’s education, but particularly those going into materials science. I feel that people go into the subject because they don’t want to specialise to early in life.
At universities, materials science is often the course that is the most interesting because it’s so broad, and I think universities would do better to make their degrees broader and expand the entry requirements so as to not just take A-level results into account.
What are you working on in your own research at the moment?
The work in animate materials is very exciting to me because I’ve been doing it for a long time and I think the future is going to be of a new category of materials that will become more important – materials that repair themselves and have integrated information systems.
As we see the power of information systems growing, so we’ll see that materials themselves will be required to respond to information, not least about themselves – for example, knowing when they have been damaged. As we try to build things to last longer, with more sophisticated pieces of engineering, we’re going to need them to be more robust, so it seems obvious that the materials will need to understand when they’re damaged and react accordingly. I’m working on a project called the Self-Repairing Cities Project, which I am convinced is the future – we’re going to try to make a whole different category of materials systems.
I also work on 3D printing and different manufacturing methods because I think that’s part of the way to produce new and interesting materials that are more animate and have more integrated electronics. I also love the work with the arts and design because things only really work well in people’s hands when they respond to them on a human level, which means the touch and smell – all those things really matter. I think studying these aspects is very important.
How do you think smart AI and technology will influence materials science?
I think AI will surely be part of the normal palatte of techniques for a materials scientist in the future. I think the subject is an understanding of how different scales of structure interact, which means that materials scientists have to understand everything from the atomic scale all the way through to application, which could be a bridge, a space shuttle or a shoe. It’s that breadth of scales that make materials science so fascinating – but also incredibly complex. I think that we will therefore need help with that complexity, and that AI could provide that. It could become the most intelligent thing on the planet, so we should definitely use it.
What research have you seen recently that you think is exciting?
We have a fellow here at UCL who’s doing a project on 4D printing, and I think it’s a great area. It’s the 3D printing of materials, but you’re also printing an actuator and other systems that allow the product to deploy itself or change shape. That, I think, is potentially an incredibly powerful concept.
Is there anything you would expect to change in materials science in the next few years?
We at the Institute of Making, and I saw it at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA, on a recent visit, see a much bigger demand for materials science students to understand the history of materials by actually recreating historic processes. I think bringing the history of materials back into the subject, and having that experience of recreating the processes, will give an understanding of materials through actually making them, rather than just having the theory. A greater emphasis on this making of materials and building full-scale prototypes is one to watch.
Do you have any upcoming projects?
I just published a new book on materials science called Liquid: The Delightful and Dangerous Substances That Flow Through Our Lives, so I’m going to be out giving lots of talks about that, and I plan to write another. I feel like I would like to see more departments taking up research in the areas of design and the arts, and I’m going to continue to promote that because I think that’s what is really missing.