Article - Issue 61, December 2014

Professor Mark Miodownik FREng

His marvellous materials

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It has not always been easy balancing work as a university researcher with that of a media celebrity. However, after 10 years walking this tightrope, Professor Mark Miodownik FREng feels that that there is now a greater understanding of both his subject and why interacting with the media is important. Michael Kenward interviewed him at the Institute of Making he has helped create at UCL.

The early steps of Mark Miodownik’s personal journey are well known. His best-selling account of materials that have shaped the world, Stuff Matters (winner of the Royal Society’s 2014 Winton Prize for Science Books), begins with his account of being assaulted as a schoolboy by a razor-wielding beggar. The razor attack started a fixation with materials. How could this thin sliver of steel do so much damage to his precious leather jacket, not to mention several layers of skin?

Stuff matters

His analysis of the weapon used to attack followed on from his home life. His father, an academic metallurgist at the University of Surrey, kept tools and a workshop at home. “He was the sort of person who would have a go at mending most things. When you have a dad like that, you absorb it. I had an enormous infusion of making, materials and engineering.”

After school, Miodownik took on a materials engineering degree at the University of Oxford and then went on to study for a PhD working on new alloys for jet engines. Sponsored by GEC, he had, in the meantime, spent a year in industry looking at the materials science of failures in big turbines for electricity generation. The experience put Miodownik off an industrial career. “I just wasn’t enthused because it was 9am to 5pm office work, and people left on the dot of 5pm. I was left wondering where the engineering passion was in the company.”

Not much has changed, it seems. Miodownik complains that “an enormous whiff of the 19th century still hangs over a lot of UK manufacturing”. It often doesn’t provide a place for young engineers to develop their ideas. “If UK industry and manufacturing want more innovative people, and they want more of the best and the brightest, then have to compete with what other types of industry are offering in terms of the working environments.”

At the moment, he feels that they are going into design and consultancy companies, where there are great perks, like a flexible working environment where engineers can take one day off every two weeks to do their own projects. “The big manufacturing companies have got to offer the same lifestyle if they want the best people. I can’t understand why they don’t spend more time and effort trying. It is almost as if they want the solution to more engineers and more status for engineering to be solved by someone else. It is not just the pay, and telling people the engineering does something exciting, it actually has to be exciting at all levels of the business. No one should have to do a mundane and monotonous job in an engineering firm.”

ANALYSING ALLOYS

When it came to moving forward in his own career, Miodownik admits that “like a lot of people I didn’t quite know what I should be doing”. A PhD seemed like a good idea: “I was enjoying applied engineering research”. It also helped that his PhD project was in a research group led by Dr John Martin, whose interests spread beyond the narrow confines of metallurgy. “He taught me a lot about the personality of materials science.”

With his PhD in aerospace alloys completed, Miodownik’s career started on a traditional path. Still looking for a job, he worked as a post-doc in Oxford as what he describes as a “researcher-for-hire”. He helped a manufacturing company that was having problems making tungsten carbide tools for extruding copper pipes.

Professor Mark Miodownik FREng

Professor Mark Miodownik FREng

Miodownik’s knowledge of extruding copper pipe was stuck at undergraduate level and he knew next to nothing about tungsten carbide. His solution was to ask questions that explored the process from scratch. He quizzed the company on what it was doing, which turned out to be working with some complicated geometry. Then he talked to people who had spent a lifetime working with the material and asked them how they joined complex tungsten carbide parts, which was essentially to use vacuum furnaces. “And then I just did it!”

The project not only came up with a patent, it also brought home to Miodownik the value of communication. “I suddenly realised how easy it was to solve a problem. You can do your job 10 times faster if you can ask the right questions and get the right answers. Communication skills are not just important to promote a subject, they are important to be a better engineer.”

Mark Miodownik is a passionate communicator. He believes that engineering in general needs to place more value on communication skills. These are often seen as some of the ‘soft skills’, a label that Miodownik dismisses as, “a derogatory term that we should get rid of, as they really are not soft.”

With his own communications skills, Miodownik could have done something really radical and become a full-time media pundit. Over the years, he has contributed to TV programmes, newspaper columns, regular radio appearances and work with various arts bodies. He could have abandoned the lab for the studio. But Miodownik insists “I have no desire to be a full-time presenter nor a full-time media person. The only reason why I am useful to newspapers and the BBC is because I know what I’m talking about and that is because I’m fully immersed with science and engineering in my day job.

TOP MODELLER

With his contract research project out of the way, Miodownik began to climb the academic ladder, beginning in 2000 as a lecturer at King’s College London with research on metals. Around the middle of the decade, Miodownik added very different materials to his research interests. Before entering academia, he had worked as a postdoctoral fellow at Sandia National Laboratories in the US. While there, building on his PhD, he became an expert in the computer modelling of alloys. He had picked up awards for his work on developing computer simulation methods to understand the effect of thermo-mechanical processing on metal alloys.

“I realised that the complexity of the self-organisation processes that I was modelling had corollaries in living substances.” After all, he adds, the physics and the length scales are the same. Miodownik’s work concentrated on studying self-organisation and self-healing in materials. “I was really interested in knowing to what extent
there was any connection between them. The materials that you find in biology are very highly optimised.” He thought that looking at biological systems would be a good way to find new materials that engineers could exploit.

Then, the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA) got wind of another of Miodownik’s ventures, the library of materials that he had begun to assemble in 2003 at Kings College.

As a young academic, says Miodownik, “I would go to research conferences, and nobody would have the materials there that they were talking about.” The absence of samples puzzled Miodownik, especially when it came to teaching undergraduates about materials that he had barely encountered. “It is very intimidating when you have just done a PhD on one particular alloy and someone asks you about carbon fibre composites. I started collecting samples as a way both to understand the spectrum of materials and so that I could teach it to other people.” The collection kept growing. People started knocking on his door: they weren’t interested in talking to him, they just wanted to look at the collection.

The library had another purpose. “People get addicted to a very small set of materials, which they just use again and again and again because they know how to use them. I wanted to broaden people’s spectrum and outlook.”

NESTA invited Miodownik, then Head of the Materials Research Group at King’s, to take its money to develop the library. “It was a magic moment. All of a sudden something that I thought was really important had a funder, without even having to apply. Which was great!”

NEXT CAREER MOVE

Miodownik moved, with his research team and their materials library, to UCL in 2012, where his full title is Professor of Materials and Society. “I wanted to make a statement that when you do engineering it is human and it is to do with society, it is to do with culture.” The importance of ‘society’ in engineering underlies recent changes in UCL’s approach to teaching engineering.

UCL’s integrated engineering programme is, says Miodownik, moving from teaching the subject as latter-day engineers taught it. Traditionally this meant three years learning the basics of engineering before students addressed real-world problems. “The point is not to leave that to the end, because by that point students often think that engineering is just about solving equations”, explains Miodownik. “We are turning that around and saying that engineering is about solving problems, and all of those problems are human problems. So, first of all, you have to understand the humans and the problems. Then you need to understand the kind of solutions that are going to be socially acceptable, politically acceptable, economically viable. Then, at that point, we need you to do some detailed engineering analysis.”

Materials library labels

The Institute of Making’s library of materials, and their uses in everyday objects. Members of the public can explore this resource for researchers and students at open days and themed events – see www.instituteofmaking.org.uk

Miodownik would like to see other cultural changes in engineering. In particular, he believes that “one of the biggest problems of engineering and of its social image is the gender balance. Gender equality will change what engineering is and how it is done. It will change which problems are chosen and how they are solved.” Another benefit of a better gender balance would be to improve the image of engineering. “Engineering won’t be seen as being something slightly odd because it will be represented by all the people who are in society, not just a proportion of them.”

INSTITUTE OF MAKING

Miodownik’s move to UCL also gave him and his research team the opportunity to fully develop the concept of the materials library and how people use it, transforming it into the Institute of Making. This time it was an individual, Professor Anthony Finkelstein FREng, rather than an organisation who made the change possible. “He made it happen,” says Miodownik, not least through departmental funding for the institute’s core staff. Miodownik and Finkelstein pooled their ideas on materials and the idea of an interdisciplinary ‘makespace’.

Finkelstein, UCL’s Dean of Engineering and Professor of Software Systems Engineering, saw a vacant loading bay and set out to fill it with a new building for the library of materials and a portfolio of equipment, including a laser cutter, 3D printers, and a dedicated ceramics area, along with sewing machines and woodworking paraphernalia. Anyone at UCL can use the institute as the practical equivalent of the university’s library, somewhere to try out ideas and make prototypes. Miodownik sees the Institute of Making as “a new model for how making and materials can promote innovative research, teaching and public engagement”, in essence, somewhere to bring together all of the themes of his own life in engineering and research.

Science club

Mark Miodownik (right) was a presenter on Dara O Briain’s Science Club on BBC Two. For the last 10 years, Miodownik has reached global audiences of millions with his radio and television appearances. He presented the BBC2 series The Genius of Invention; presented the three-part series on materials science, How it Works, for BBC4, and a follow-up series called Everyday Miracles. He has also appeared many times on BBC Radio 4’s Material World, Start the Week, and other programmes. He writes a column for The Observer about materials science and engineering © BBC Photo Library

While the institute is a focus for the use and development of 3D printing, Miodownik isn’t one of those people who thinks that the technology is going to change everything about manufacturing. It is certainly useful for making bespoke items. He insists that, “in the medical arena, it is going to be a winner because we are all different shapes and sizes.” 3D printing is also excellent for trying out new ideas. “The biggest impact of 3D printing, which we already see at the institute, is that it allows you really quickly to go from an idea to a prototype. That is a way of thinking that really changes the way that you work. The way you engineer.”

The institute, which describes itself as “a very unusual research club”, has proved popular throughout UCL and now had more than 3,500 members. Engineers rub shoulders with students from just about every other department at UCL, including art, architecture, chemistry and physics. Anthropology students turn up to create replicas of their specimens, for example. The institute has run workshops on the history of materials, with practical sessions to explore how people react to medical materials, fireworks and restored books “as a way to generate new historical questions”.

Miodownik is especially proud of the fact that staff use the institute as much as students. “They see each other as equals in that space. That doesn’t happen a lot around universities. It is great when you see a student telling a staff member how to use the 3D printer and the laser cutter.” One reason for the academic interest is that the institute helps researchers in their mainstream work. “What the institute does really well is to support people making kit to do their experiments.”

It isn’t just barriers between disciplines, academics and students that the institute brings down. “The whole delight of the place,” says Miodownik, “is that it doesn’t feel like a traditional engineering space. That is why we have got a good gender balance as well.” The institute even helps UCL to lure in students, who these days want something beyond traditional lectures.

The institute is also creating social and commercial spin-outs. A group of students recently turned up to work on work on individual projects but joined together to develop the Darwin Toolbox, a biotechnology laboratory for doing things like DNA analysis at a school level. The project gave the institute its first spin-out. Another start-up, Bentham 3D, set up by James Cook, a third-year undergraduate, recently picked up an award, and funding, for its plans to develop and commercialise a 3D-printed cycling helmet.

Making new things should be at the heart of the work of engineers in academia, Miodownik insists. “There should be as many prototype machines and inventions coming out of engineering departments as papers.”

Miodownik’s own belief in making things prompted his third career shift. After 10 years working on metals and much of the first decade of the 21st century working on biomaterials, Miodownik worried that, as he puts it, “if I’m not careful, the only thing that I will end up producing in my whole career are bits of paper. I just like making stuff too much not to put the two halves of my life together. I would like to have a go at solving a big problem.”

In pursuit of this ambition, Miodownik has embarked on a project to develop wearable exoskeletons, and another trying to create a new material that is much more responsive to human touch. “What I have decided to do for my next 10 years is to apply my knowledge to making complex material systems that solve problems.” As yet, he is non-committal on his plans for the following decade. But there is a good chance that it will include another of his passions, championing the use of new materials technologies in the creative industries.

BIOGRAPHY

Michael Kenward OBE has been a freelance writer since 1990 and is a member of the Ingenia Editorial board. He is Editor-at-Large of Science|Business.

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