By  Eric Williamson
Morgan Small stands at the door of Wilsdorf Hall
Morgan Small stands at the door of Wilsdorf Hall. The building is home to the new undergraduate materials science engineering program, as well as the long-established program at the graduate level. (Photo by Wende Whitman)

Morgan Small, who graduates this Sunday from the University of Virginia School of Engineering and Applied Science, will be going to work soon for her dream employer, NASA. 

Small is a materials science research engineer who will help the air and space agency better define which materials will hold up, and which will break down, when airborne machines operate at hypersonic speeds.

In terms of a career, the Bureau of Labor statistics projects strong growth for materials engineering over the next decade. And while her decision was a practical one, it was also emotional. Small has long been interested in two things: becoming an engineer like her father, and having a career at NASA. 

“I spent my childhood near Cape Canaveral, watching the shuttles go up,” she said.

Small is now watching her career take off as one of the first graduates of the Materials Science and Engineering undergraduate program.

Small wears a hardhat as she walks through a NASA construction site.
Small wears a hardhat as she walks through a NASA construction site. (Courtesy photo)

A Launchpad With Hot Job Prospects         

“Hypersonics” refers to the development of vehicles that will travel at more than five times the speed of sound. 

That is, if they’re not overwhelmed by forces acting upon them in flight. Nations and corporations worldwide are racing to figure out what will work best.

In a lab in UVA’s Wilsdorf Hall, Small held up a quartz test tube. The tube had already cooled. Previously it had been heated to 1200 degrees Celsius in a furnace roughly the size of a small microwave turned on its side. The tube contained a compound whose oxidation properties the U.S. Department of Defense has asked the University to tell them more about. Oxidation is a natural process that leads to deterioration of materials, and it can speed up in extreme environments. Understanding how the material might act as part of a coating in heat shielding or within plasma engines could drive new innovations.

“Our box furnaces are very well used and very well loved by the Opila Lab,” Small noted. 

The lab is named for professor Elizabeth J. Opila, who oversees the program, chairs the Materials Science Engineering Department and is the director of the Rolls Royce University Technology Center on Advanced Material Systems

“Morgan worked her way through measuring, quantifying and understanding how these oxides expand and contract upon heating and cooling,” Opila said. “Some early wonky results proved challenging, but she persevered to get high-fidelity results.”

Before academia, Opila was a long-time employee of NASA. Her advances in ceramics engineering moved the entire field of aerospace forward. 

I had someone offer me an internship on the spot at a UVA career fair last year...

The accomplished professor’s lab, thus, is a bonanza of equipment and research to be conducted — one reason why Small decided on the materials science focus. There was always something she could do that was both needed and hands-on.

“I and other faculty have plenty of opportunities for undergraduates to get solid lab experience,” Opila said. “The research makes terrific projects for undergraduates to train on.” 

In addition to NASA, Small received offers from several other major employers. Their proposals started coming to her in the fall, without her reaching out first in some cases. 

“Materials is a booming community right now because there are so many problems that are materials problems,” the student said. “For example, another graduate in my capstone course works with corrosion the most. She now has a job with the Navy to research corrosion on ships to extend their lifetimes.”

And though many other employers, including biomedical developers, are seeking out materials science graduates, Small observed that the aerospace industry, and in particular hypersonics divisions, are leading the charge. 

“I had someone offer me an internship on the spot at a UVA career fair last year because I said I was a materials person who worked in hypersonics,” Small said.

Small Class Size, Personalized Learning 

Though UVA has taught materials at the graduate level since the early 1960s, the undergraduate degree is much newer. The first student, Marcus Dozier, graduated from the program in 2021. He went on to become a materials process engineer at Newport News Shipbuilding.

Only a dozen undergraduates have earned the Bachelor of Science in Materials Science Engineering since then. This year, UVA will add a half dozen more. Graduating with Small will be Thomas Domer, Emma Laubengayer, Gabe Lu, Leah Smith and Alexandra Uy.

“Our small class size means lots of engagement with professors,” Opila pointed out. 

Each student in the cohort was a member of a materials science research lab, if not multiple labs, she added. Students can begin a path toward specializing in areas where UVA has faculty expertise: corrosion and electrochemistry, structural materials, soft materials, and electrical, magnetic and optical properties of materials.

For example, as a second-year student, Small collaborated with Rolls Royce in UVA’s Robert Kelly Research Group, to test how common alloys used in aircraft construction degrade. She even co-authored a published paper on the research.

The next year, based on her growing lab experience at UVA and previous NASA internships in their archives and in materials science computer modeling, the agency offered her a summer internship at Langley doing thermal research in David Glass’ lab there. 

Small seated at NASA
Small is seated, holding a model, at NASA Langley. (Courtesy photo)

She has also benefited from a long-term mentor who is a contractor for NASA, thermal protection expert Vincent Cuda.

“His work helped set the world record for the fastest hypersonic plane ever, Mach 9.68, and he challenged me to break his record by the end of my career,” Small said. “Crazy, right?”

The student said she liked the synergy as she returned to working on heat-related projects in the Opila Lab during her last two years of school. 

Opila said she was not only impressed by Small’s capability but also her consistent work ethic over the past four years.

“I've seen her grow both as a fine researcher and as a materials scientist who fully understands processing, structure and property paradigm,” the professor said.

Along the way, Small bonded with a tight-knit group of students from her lab and course work. They even found time to slay a few dragons.

“We just finished up a three-year Dungeons and Dragons campaign,” she reflected.

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