Professor honors legacy of renowned materials scientist by finishing textbook

Susan Trolier-McKinstry, Steward S. Flaschen Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, with renowned materials scientist Robert Newnham, at the Franklin Medal in Electrical Engineering ceremony. Credit: Courtesy: Susan Trolier-McKinstryAll Rights Reserved.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A college education presents an opportunity for students to build fulfilling relationships with educators. For some, the influence of these relationships can last a lifetime.

No one knows this better than Susan Trolier-McKinstry, the Steward S. Flaschen Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at Penn State.

As a student at Penn State, Trolier-McKinstry was an advisee of renowned materials scientist Robert E. Newnham. Trolier-McKinstry received her bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees from Penn State, with Newnham advising both her master’s and doctoral theses.

Trolier-McKinstry’s work mimics Newnham’s research in many ways; she acknowledges his training had a massive influence on her career. Her research focuses on dielectrics, piezoelectrics, and their miniaturization for applications in sensors, medical imaging and more.

“I also joke: Newnham was 6 feet 5 inches tall — I’m not quite 5 feet tall,” Trolier-McKinstry said. “So, for whatever reason, when he saw me, the first program he assigned me to was on miniaturization,” she said with a laugh.

An expert lecturer and adviser, Newnham also was a leading researcher in the field. He invented the composite piezoelectric transducer that makes modern ultrasound scans possible and attained several awards like the Franklin Medal in Electrical Engineering, which is one of the highest distinctions in the science fields.

“He was amazing, both as an educator and a scientist,” said Trolier-McKinstry.

So, when Newnham approached Trolier-McKinstry with the goal of collaborating on a textbook, she gladly obliged. It was agreed that Newnham would write the content and Trolier-McKinstry would supply the figures.

The writing process didn’t proceed as planned, unfortunately.

When Newnham fell ill during their work together, Trolier-McKinstry agreed to finish the book for him.

“That was a promise,” she said.

Cover of the textbook “Materials Engineering: Bonding, Structure, and Structure-Property Relationships,” written by Susan Trolier-McKinstry, Steward S. Flaschen Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, and renowned materials scientist Robert Newnham. Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

She fulfilled her promise and the textbook, “Materials Engineering: Bonding, Structure, and Structure-Property Relationships,” was published in December 2017.

Trolier-McKinstry had a few goals for the book. One of these was to fill a niche in materials science educational material.

“There simply was no text in the literature that covered both crystal structure and structure-property relations well,” said Trolier-McKinstry.

The book is intended to fix this problem, and serve a wide audience: undergraduates, graduate students and even professionals in the field.

Another issue the textbook addresses is inconsistency in notation and nomenclature. Without a textbook that puts information in one place, educators resort to teaching from different sources. Use of different variables and unit systems can create confusion, and Trolier-McKinstry hopes the text will solve that problem.

“This was an attempt to bring it all together,” she said.

The text also is intended to honor Newnham’s legacy.

Newnham was a master of crafting new ways to think about materials, said Trolier-McKinstry. His aptitude for creating understandable, versatile analogies and visualizations distinguished him as both a researcher and a professor.

“His goal, and my goal, was to transfer that kind of intuitive thinking forward,” said Trolier-McKinstry.

Working closely with Newnham’s children, Randy and Rosemary, she was able to integrate Newnham’s drafted chapters into the text.

The textbook is currently in its second semester of use at Penn State. It also is being used by other educators throughout the United States, as well as some in China and Europe.

Trolier-McKinstry has a vision for the book to impart Newnham’s philosophy — and it’s on its way to being realized.

“He influenced not just me, but whole generations of people,” she said. “He was an amazing person, and somebody that we should be proud of.”

Last Updated December 13, 2018