Before coming to work at ORNL, materials scientist Kinga Unocic completed her doctoral and master's degrees in materials science and engineering at The Ohio State University. She also obtained her master's degree in metallurgical engineering at AGH University of Science and Technology in her native Poland. Although she finished the research for her AGH degree at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, Unocic says she didn't originally have plans to stay in the US.
"I wanted to finish my research, improve my English language skills, then return to Poland to start my career," she says. "Having a second language is very important in Poland in the business and scientific fields. However, while I was at Lehigh, I became accustomed to the US lifestyle. More importantly I found a sense of purpose regarding my research interests. I also met my husband at Lehigh, which also changed my plans."
Transplanting her professional life across the Atlantic turned out to be a good move for Unocic. "I came to the US with two suitcases, $500 in my pocket and a dream. In retrospect I'm very happy with the way things worked out," she says. "At ORNL I've had the opportunity to work among the leading scientists in my field on cutting-edge research projects that challenge me as a scientist. It is also important that the research that I am conducting has a direct impact on society. I probably would not have had the same range of opportunities at other institutions."
We asked Unocic what led her to a career in materials science and how she sees advances in the field affecting our daily lives.
You're often held up as an example of the "next generation" of materials researchers. What distinguishes your generation of scientists from previous generations?
Previous generations of scientists laid the scientific groundwork for our fundamental knowledge of materials science and engineering. The current technological revolution allows us to apply that knowledge to developing new materials for specific applications. Recent advances in technology enable us to make scientific progress at a much faster pace than previous generations of researchers could have ever imagined. We also benefit from improvements in analytical equipment that enable us to characterize material properties all the way down to the atomic scale.
What made you want to pursue a career in materials science?
I wanted to be a part of something bigger than myself, something that would make a difference in people's lives. At first I wanted to be a medical doctor, but in high school I found that I excelled at courses in math and physics rather than biology and chemistry. Materials science seemed like a career choice that matched my interests and would allow me to work on interesting materials-specific problems.
What qualities would you say are most important for being a successful researcher?
I would say dedication, passion, being a team player, collaboration—and most importantly having fun. Recently one of my very accomplished colleagues said to me, "It's important to have fun while you are doing research." I think he is exactly right. If you enjoy what you are doing, then you'll be a more effective researcher, and you'll be able to make the scientific advances that can change people's lives.
You work in the lab's ShaRE microscopy user facility. What does ShaRE do?
ShaRE stands for Shared Research Equipment. It's a US Department of Energy, Office of Science user facility that provides researchers from universities, industry and other national laboratories with the opportunity to conduct their research using an array of state-of-the-art electron microscopes. They also collaborate with our staff scientists who are all experts in their fields. Most of the research done at ShaRE involves investigating energy-related issues in the areas of materials science, chemistry and physics.
Where can we see the results of the kind of R&D being done at ShaRE in our daily lives?
The world is dependent upon energy, and there is a constant demand for increased energy efficiency and environmentally friendly alternative energy sources. Developing these technologies often requires new materials. Power plants, for example, can increase their efficiency by operating at higher temperatures. However, higher temperatures place an increased demand on the mechanical properties and long-term stability of materials. ORNL has a long history of alloy development for such high-temperature applications. One of the projects I worked on recently involved analyzing a new alloy after it had been exposed inside the boiler of a biomass- and waste-fired power plant. Understanding how new alloys perform in these aggressive, high-temperature environments will help us direct our research toward developing materials that will make new and more efficient power-generation technologies a reality.
Five years from now, what sort of research problems do you expect to be investigating? How will they be different from what you're working on today?
Well, that's difficult to say. Currently the use of natural gas is increasing in the US, so in five years we may be looking at technologies to improve the efficiency and reliability of natural gas power plants. We may also be helping to develop new materials and coatings for use in more efficient, high-temperature gas-fired turbines. There might even be a demand for automotive gas turbines with ultra-low emissions and the ability to burn natural gas, diesel or biodiesel—depending on the price of fuel.
I also work closely with ORNL's Corrosion Science & Technology Group. A lot of my work involves understanding how extreme conditions affect the performance and reliability of materials. One of my current projects involves studying the durability of lightweight magnesium alloys. These alloys could have a significant impact on the efficiency of cars and planes, so the research is very timely.
Our ability to develop new materials often provides a pathway to improving the efficiency of existing technologies or developing entirely new technologies. I expect the field of materials science will always provide exciting problems for me to investigate and solve.