‘Everything is made out of something’
Materials engineer uses NSF CAREER award to develop hollow materials
“Everything is made out of something.” That’s the message Ashley Paz y Puente shares with her students in one of her University of Cincinnati courses that serves as an introduction to the field she has dedicated her career to: materials science.
Paz y Puente is an assistant professor of materials engineering at the University of Cincinnati College of Engineering and Applied Science. Supported by the prestigious National Science Foundation CAREER grant she was awarded in 2022, Paz y Puente is researching how to create stronger and lighter weight materials that could be applied to almost everything we use in our daily lives.
She is seeking to better understand the Kirkendall effect in the process of diffusion — diffusion is what occurs when you watch food coloring disperse in water, for example. The Kirkendall effect refers to the discovery that certain types of atoms diffuse more quickly than others and they leave behind empty spaces called vacancies. These empty spaces can merge to form pores in the material, which is generally not a desirable feature because they can weaken it.
In Paz y Puente’s lab, the objective is to study how composition, geometry and temperature influence this pore formation. With a better understanding of how to manipulate these pores, Paz y Puente can open the door to the creation of hollow materials that could be used in our cars, our electronics, our new buildings — the possibilities are vast.
Although the research work fascinates her, Paz y Puente also draws motivation from teaching and mentoring her students. She always knew she wanted to teach in some capacity, but she never imagined she would become a professor of engineering until her own teachers helped her embark on that journey.
As a young student, Paz y Puente didn’t see herself on a path to a career in science — in fact, she was disinterested in science fair projects and was set on becoming a high school math teacher. She excelled in her 10th grade chemistry class and her teacher noticed and encouraged her to take a science research class. The high school course included participating in a research project with professors at nearby University of Central Florida. During this time, she also attended a one-day Saturday materials science camp hosted by another UCF professor.
These experiences led Paz y Puente to attend University of Central Florida for her undergraduate program in mechanical engineering with a focus on materials research. The professor who ran that high school camp, Dr. Yongho Sohn, became her mentor. Paz y Puente worked in his research lab during the entirety of her undergraduate years and also during her materials science master’s program.
Her passion for teaching led Paz y Puente to pursue a Ph.D. in materials science at Northwestern University working with Dr. David Dunand. With the goal of teaching engineering and materials science to college students and continuing her research in the field, she sought out a faculty position and came to UC in 2016.
“I really like being in the classroom interacting with students and seeing them learn about things that they didn’t previously know,” she said. “I like seeing the lightbulbs go off for students.”
Paz y Puente is dedicated to outreach to students of all ages who may not have a role model that could help them envision pursuing a STEM career or earning a graduate degree. She frequently participates on panels, gives tours of UC’s Digital Fabrication Lab to student groups, and is launching similar outreach activities like the ones she participated in as a high school student.
“I didn’t see someone like myself growing up that would make me think I could just go and be an engineer and a professor,” she said. “I’m passionate about encouraging students, especially groups that are traditionally underrepresented in STEM, to pursue these kinds of fields.”
Her teachers and mentors, as well as outreach events, opened her eyes to the world of materials science as a discipline. Now, as a professor, she aims to pay it forward by teaching and guiding future generations of students. Paz y Puente is on a mission to help inspire young people interested in materials science with her frequently repeated phrase — that applies to almost anything — “you can’t make it without materials!"
Featured image at top: Ashley Paz y Puente works in her materials engineering lab. Photos/Corrie Mayer/CEAS Marketing.