Olsen Fellows Find Practical Applications for High-Temperature, Corrosion-Resistant Alloys

In October 2019, distinguished alumnus Greg Olsen (MSE ’71) pledged $25 million to the University of Virginia’s School of Engineering to recruit and retain star faculty, support strategic initiatives and attract outstanding Ph.D. students.

The Department of Materials Science and Engineering has dedicated $10.5 million from this historic gift for Olsen graduate fellowships. The fellowships enable Ph.D. students to hone their skills and accelerate their drive for discovery while gaining exposure to modern research problems with a broad understanding of practical applications. The department welcomed three Olsen fellows to Grounds in fall 2020.

Sarah Blust, Charlotte Brandenburg and Debashish “Dev” Sur join a vibrant community of Ph.D. students in materials science and engineering. Ph.D. enrollments have increased over 60%, from 52 in 2015 to 85 in 2020.

Blust traces her interest in materials and metallurgy to her undergraduate program at George Tech, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in materials science and engineering. Her metallurgy research introduced her to problems of stress corrosion and environmental cracking of aluminum alloys.

“I read as many papers as I could find about aluminum alloys’ corrosion resistance, and noticed that half of these came from UVA,” Blust said.

Blust had her sights set on a Ph.D. program, but she wanted to round out and finalize her undergraduate research before applying. She spent her “gap year” in Cincinnati, conducting research for Proctor & Gamble’s professional line of detergents, including Tide and Downey, supplied to large-scale laundry operations such as hotels.

“I learned how to use soft skills working with others not just in the lab but across the company,” Blust said. “I also had a unique perspective on the whole material system, not only within one product line, but how detergents and additives like bleach and fabric softener work together.” She also gained insight into regulatory and other constraints on materials appropriate for use for homes and businesses.

Blust applied to UVA’s Ph.D. program in materials science engineering with the aim of continuing her research on fracture mechanics and stress corrosion cracking of metal alloys. She joined a research group in the Center for Electrochemical Science and Engineering led by James T. Burns, associate professor of materials science and engineering.

Burns’ group strives to understand how the environment influences the properties and performance of structural metals, namely aluminum alloys, ultra-high strength stainless steels and nickel-based super-alloys. Blust contributes to an investigation of crack growth in the containment vessels for interim storage of spent nuclear fuel rods, with particular focus on environmental stressors such as humidity, temperature and salty air.

Brandenburg grew up in Cedar Falls, Iowa. “I’m the first person in my family to not study education or classical music,” Brandenburg said. She learned violin and piano from a young age. Throughout her youth and teen years, she assumed she would go into the arts and made a plan to pursue a degree and career in architecture. She applied to art schools and, with portfolio in hand, arrived at art school orientation at Iowa State University.

But something was missing. “The art program lacked the mathematical problem solving that I really enjoyed, especially my involvement in my high school robotics team,” Brandenburg said.

Brandenberg first became interested in materials science and engineering while working on carbon fiber components for the PrISUm Solar Car Team.

Brandenburg contributed to a wide range of learning experiences. She participated in K-12 outreach activities as a member of the Tau Beta Pi engineering honors society; supported the design and manufacture of Osteoceramic implants while working in the Osteoceramics research lab led by Thomas McGee, professor emeritus of materials science and engineering; and developed advanced materials for useable items that enable and support NASA missions as an advanced materials processing intern at the NASA Langley Research Center.

“I purposely sought out a broad range of experiences, but the most impactful was my time on the solar car team,” Brandenburg said. Her first motivation was to spend more time with friends who were on the team, but quickly became deeply invested in the project.

“I was inspired by a student-driven effort taking on such an ambitious project - building a functioning car in only two years, with limited faculty or industry involvement,” Brandenburg said.

She worked primarily with the composites subdivision of the team, on projects ranging from small-scale mechanical tests to verify the properties of donated materials, to laying up the aerodynamic carbon fiber shell of the car by hand. She dabbled in other areas too, the most exciting being a turn at the wheel.

“I got to drive the solar car in our race in the summer of 2016. It was eye-opening to see the behind-the-scenes roles materials science played in so many aspects of the project, and ultimately why I decided to pursue a degree in materials science and engineering,” Brandenburg said.

She selected UVA for her Ph.D. during the School of Engineering’s student visit weekend in February 2020. “I had a great experience. I met with many faculty members, including Professor Opila, as well as students. Everyone I talked to was super friendly and welcoming,” Brandenburg said. “But what stood out was my impression that students had a strong network of supportive comradery,” Brandenburg said. The beautiful campus and mountain scenery helped, too.  

Brandenburg joined the advanced high-temperature materials research group led by Elizabeth J. Opila, professor of materials science and engineering and mechanical and aerospace engineering. Brandenburg studies oxidation of refractory alloys, meaning they maintain structural stability at high temperatures. These alloys can survive extreme environments, making them ideal for space program applications.

Sur hails from Nagpur, a city in the heart of India. He is the first generation of his family to complete a graduate degree program and pursue a doctorate. “My family is very supportive,” Sur said. “They stand as strong pillars of encourement to pursue my research interests to the fullest extent.”

Sur earned his bachelor’s degree in technology with honors from the Indian Institute of Engineering Science and Technology, where he studied metallurgy and materials engineering. With approximately two years of undergraduate research experience, Sur followed his passion for materials research to the United States, enrolling in the graduate program at the University of Florida. One of his first graduate courses was crystallography, which IIEST had not offered. “I was fortunate to fill in these knowledge gaps and learn from classmates who arrived in the program with diverse disciplines in chemistry, polymers and biomedical engineering,” Sur said.

While at the University of Florida, Sur interned at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where he split his time between corrosion science and alloy behavior and design groups. His specific project developed aluminum-cerium alloys to enhance the strength and stability of engines and heat exchangers. This experience introduced Sur to the academic corrosion research hubs. “UVA’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering offered the best combination of metallurgy and corrosion expertise to allow me to continue the research I started at Oak Ridge,” Sur said.

Sur joined the research group led by John R. Scully, Charles Henderson Chaired Professor of Materials Science and Engineering and department chair. Sur studies the effects of chemical short-range ordering in self-healing alloys, a hot topic in alloy design research. These alloys can autonomously or spontaneously repair damage from heat, light, solvents and other environmental factors, essentially restoring their original properties. Sur envisions incorporating his studies into the design of lightweight, corrosion-resistant complex concentrated alloys, which are candidates for next-generation structural materials and new coatings in propulsion applications.

“I’m a metallurgist at my core,” Sur said. “I really like dealing with alloys—their processing, properties, characterization—all of it. I intend to learn all about the intricacies of corrosion science and get hands-on experience in new characterization techniques here at UVA.”

Olsen’s historic gift will help the department achieve its goal of growing Ph.D. student enrollment from 75 to 125 or more. “Ph.D. students enable research, develop novel ideas and generate new science. They are also lab instructors and role models for undergraduate students,” Scully said. “Greg’s commitment to helping us grow our Ph.D. program will have an enduring impact.”

“I am honored to receive the fellowship, especially from a department alum,” Sur said. “Greg’s contribution and service to the department provides a tangible example of my own interests and goals, to encourage and inspire research in materials science and engineering, while repaying to my alma maters the many opportunities I have received.”