Elizabeth J. Opila, a noted innovator in the development of ceramics, alloys and ceramic coatings designed to perform at extreme temperatures and in harsh, reactive environments, such as aircraft engines, has been appointed chair of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering beginning January 2023.
Opila, the Rolls-Royce Commonwealth Professor of Materials Science and Engineering since 2021, joined the department in 2010 and has served as the associate chair for academics. She also directs the Rolls-Royce University Technology Center for Advanced Materials Systems and holds a courtesy appointment in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.
“Beth brings a wealth of leadership experiences – as an associate chair, research center director and as leader of a very strong research group,” said Jennifer L. West, dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science. “I was particularly impressed by her recent leadership on a National Science Foundation Materials Research and Engineering Centers proposal. I have no doubt that with Beth at the helm the department will continue its path towards preeminence in both academics and research.”
Opila received her B.S. in ceramic engineering at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and a master’s and Ph.D. in materials science and engineering at the University of California, Berkeley and Massachusetts Institute of Technology respectively. She spent nearly 20 years at NASA’s Glenn Research Center, where she worked on the shuttle program and was the recipient of numerous technical, service and research honors, including four best-paper awards in her division.
Chairing the department as it builds on a strong research portfolio and the 2021 launch of the Bachelor of Science degree program in materials science and engineering enables Opila to build on her own longstanding goals.
“I joined the faculty of UVA Engineering for the opportunities to interact with students in the classroom and lab, and to collaborate with faculty in MSE department and the school,” said Opila, who succeeds Charles Henderson Chaired Professor of materials science and engineering John R. Scully as chair.
Now, following a critical departmental self-assessment and an external audit of MSE’s inclusion, diversity, equity and accessibility practices, she sees exciting opportunities ahead.
“I invite all members of our MSE community, students, staff and faculty to work together to use the findings of these studies to increase the impact of our department in academics and research in the school, UVA, and the materials science community nationally and internationally,” Opila said.
A fellow of the American Ceramic Society and the Electrochemical Society, Opila is the author or co-author of more than 150 publications and co-inventor on six patents with two patent applications pending. Her research has played a vital role in developing new materials for aircraft engines for the commercial aviation industry, NASA and the U.S. Department of Defense.
Opila’s Advanced High Temperature Materials research group focuses on materials for use in extreme environments such as rocket engines, aircraft engines, energy conversion technologies and thermal protection systems – including the leading edges of hypersonic vehicle wings.
Recent honors include the American Ceramic Society’s Arthur L. Friedberg Award in recognition of teaching and research, and appointment as Mercatur Fellow, Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft Research Training Group, Materials Compounds from Composite Materials for Applications in Extreme Conditions.
She also received UVA Research Awards in 2019 and 2020.
Among Opila’s priorities as chair is an emphasis on community, especially as the department and school emerge from lingering effects of the pandemic.
“I think it is essential to re-engage, connect with each other, and create a culture where all members of our community are valued and feel safe to be themselves,” she said.