By  Materials Science and Engineering

University of Virginia alumna Rebecca Schaller earned her Ph.D. in materials science and engineering in 2016, working with John R. Scully, Charles Henderson Professor of materials science and engineering and chair of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Science.For her dissertation, she developed techniques to measure hydrogen concentrations and interactions in ultra-high-strength steels.
During her graduate work, Rebecca earned an Endeavour Research Fellowship, conducted in collaboration with Monash University and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization in Clayton, Australia. Since completing her Ph.D., Rebecca worked as a postdoctoral assistant at Sandia National Laboratories and an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia, returning to Sandia as a staff scientist in the materials reliability group. Her research focuses on chemical and morphological effects on corrosion at the microstructural level to better predict overall corrosion properties and rates.
UVA Engineering sat down with Schaller to learn more about her interest in green energy and the national laboratory research environment.
Q. Many UVA Engineering students have an interest in sustainability and green energy. How does your research contribute to that goal?
A. I am pursuing two major projects that sit in the energy sector. One looks at spent nuclear fuel, to determine safe storage and transportation. The second project focuses on concentrated solar power, systems that generate power by using mirrors or lenses to concentrate a large area of sunlight onto a receiver. That one is an interesting project because it's a large collaboration led by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. We are advisers to an NREL-led consortium that develops methods and standards to advance concentrated solar power to the point where it could be commercially viable.
Where does corrosion science come in to play in these projects?
Both projects look at aging and lifetime reliability of materials under atmospheric conditions.
For the spent nuclear fuel project, we are concerned about corrosion of the canisters in which spent nuclear fuel rods are stored. Cracks have never been observed in the canisters to date. But over time, as the canisters cool, environmental conditions could cause a surface reaction leading to stress corrosion cracking. I look at ways to predict when and where that might occur, and develop methods for repair and mitigation, should it be needed.
This project in particular relies on close collaboration between experimentalists such as myself and modelers. While my research group at Sandia has modeling capabilities, we collaborate with other DOE national labs dedicated to modeling all kinds of phenomena. As computing power increases, we can include more that is specific to atmospheric conditions, the materials we are studying and the microstructures that interest us.
For the concentrated solar project, I am looking at understanding the aging and reliability of all the components. One of the biggest issues is the build up of dust and dirt over time. Soiling reduces reflectance of the mirrors, which reduces efficiency in generating energy. This work is in its early stages, and at the moment we are writing a gap analysis report on this technology that we expect to release before the end of the fiscal year.
What enticed you to pursue your research at a national laboratory?
I like the university feel of the national labs. I like having the balance between an end goal-driven research system with the ability to play like you would at a university. I'm encouraged to have student interns and build contacts with universities. I like that part a lot.
I like working more in the green energy sector, and it's fun to have opportunities to work on those projects, to write proposals and see if something lands. This allows me to grow professionally even if I'm in the same position for a number of years. And the spent fuel program certainly has that potential, something I could do for the next five to 10 years.
My managers have encouraged me to get involved in the corrosion community as well. I participate in multiple conferences as well as the important work of conference committees and associations. I work with a lot of students. Two post-docs and one student intern presented at the Association for Materials Protection and Performance annual conference, joined by four groups with whom we have collaborative projects, all related to spent nuclear fuel.
How did your UVA experience prepare you to work at a national lab?
I had opportunities to work in different labs, to see how different organizations in the United States and oversees approached laboratory sharing, laboratory safety and related procedures. I did some work at the Army Research Laboratory, but the formative experience took place in Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization.
When I was at UVA, I met Dr. Ivan Cole, a visiting professor and atmospheric corrosion scientist from CSIRO. When Ivan returned to CSIRO, we welcomed Dr. Nick Birbilis as a visiting professor, who is now executive dean of science, engineering and built Environment at Deakin University. Ivan and Nick encouraged me to apply for the Endeavour fellowship, which enabled me to work in an Australian national lab as well as a university. I would say to MSE students, any time they have an opportunity to work off Grounds to expand their experience and collaboration, that's extremely beneficial.
What attracted you to UVA?
I wanted to bring my love of physics to my research, to get a deeper understanding of things. John (Scully) let me do that. We developed a bunch of techniques to actually measure hydrogen in materials.
I was always kind of a nerd growing up and I liked physics a lot. But my parents were both Ph.D. scientists, so naturally when I went to college, I steered clear of any science major. I earned my degree in Spanish and lived in Spain for a while. But I realized it wasn't quite for me. I needed something more hands-on and research-based.
I went back to school, earning a master's in physics at Portland State. My adviser, Dr. Jun Jiao, had earned her master's in physics and a Ph.D. in materials science and engineering, and she encouraged me to do the same. She specializes in electron microscopy. We did a lot of materials synthesis and characterization. So when I visited UVA, I saw an opportunity to deepen and expand on work I was already doing.
It must have been helpful to work with a female mentor. How would you assess efforts to increase gender diversity and inclusion within the materials science field?
It's so important to listen to what's currently going on, not just within materials science but in communities of all types. The meaning of diversity is changing. We need to do more than increase diversity along a specific metric, such as the number of women in our field. Diversity itself means a more inclusive environment, and overall is something that would help a lot of organizations. We're not in a binary society anymore. I think the fact that people are trying is encouraging.