Ten years advancing materials research

Institute for Research in Materials celebrates anniversary

- June 21, 2012

Richard Dunlap, director of the Institute for Research in Materials. (Danny Abriel photo)
Richard Dunlap, director of the Institute for Research in Materials. (Danny Abriel photo)

Dalhousie has seen much growth over the past decade: research funding, students, physical size and, starting this fall, a growth in campuses as well, thanks to the upcoming merger with NSAC.

In research, one of the prominent growth areas has been in materials, examining the relationship between properties, structure, processing and performance of the materials used in everything we build and utilize as a society. As you might expect, it’s a multidisciplinary field by design.

“Developing new materials, and understanding existing ones, requires a lot of different approaches,” explains Mary Anne White, chemistry professor. “If you just take one approach, you won’t be able to study the full process through to how a product will work. When you work with other people, when you have to stretch between disciplines, you learn a lot more, and your grad students and other researchers learn a lot more too.”

She would know: Dr. White was the founding director of the Institute for Research in Materials (IRM), which next week celebrates its tenth anniversary with a two-day free symposium on June 26 and 27. It features presentations by researchers from across North America and beyond, and disciplines from industrial engineers to academic scientists.

Students, faculty and staff interested in attending the symposium, titled “The Future of Materials Research,” can view the schedule of speakers on the IRM website. Registration is free, but required.

Looking back at the institute's first steps

IRM’s genesis came out of a number of concurrent events in the late 1990s: the arrival of Jeff Dahn as an NSERC / 3M Canada Industrial Research Chair, the launch of the School of Biomedical Engineering, and the merger with the Technical University of Nova Scotia in 1997, bringing engineering, architecture and planning expertise into Dalhousie.

With support from the president’s office, IRM was founded, and earned its initial core funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation. Since then, it’s become a collaboration hub for more than 100 faculty members from across seven different faculties – not just Science and Engineering, but Dentistry, Health Professions, Architecture and Planning, Management and Medicine.

Some of the institute’s work involves equipment, including hosting Dal’s Facilities for Material Characterization, unique in Atlantic Canada. IRM also facilitates funding applications, gathering together critical masses of researchers to improve the potential success of proposals and identifying potential cross-discipline collaborations.

In recent years, IRM’s mandate has broadened beyond research and into education. It spearheaded the Certificate in Materials Science, which allows BSc students to gain extra training and experience in materials science. Then there’s the DREAMS program, which stands for “Dalhousie Research in Energy, Advanced Materials and Sustainability” – an interdisciplinary opportunity for students to work alongside Dalhousie professors on sustainability-focused projects, funded by the NSERC CREATE program.

Richard Dunlap, Dalhousie physicist and current director of IRM, has seen the benefits up close. He notes that the number of industrial research chairs at Dalhousie has increased significantly, with chemist Mark Obrovac and engineer Steve Corbin as the latest recruits. In the Department of Physics and Atmospheric Science alone, he’s seen the number of graduate students go from 14 when he started at Dalhousie to 80 today, many of them studying materials.

“We’ve become a magnet for graduate students,” says Dr. Dunlap. “They come here thinking broadly, not just about a particular faculty or department, but with supervision in materials research from across the university.”

Looking to the future

IRM prides itself on bringing an industry-focused approach to materials research. Says Dr. White, “We tend to be, like a lot of easterners, very practical people… We want to produce and study materials that will be used far outside the realm of basic science.”

And that’s a good thing, because the real-world needs for groundbreaking materials science are only increasing: CleanTech, materials to support renewable energy materials, biomaterials, and the list goes on and on.

“I think we’ve done very well in 10 years in establishing an institute that’s beneficial to our researchers, to Dalhousie and the region,” says Dr. Dunlap. “Looking ahead, funding for research is always a challenge, but there are also many research challenges that materials research can help solve. Our hope is to continue to provide experimental facilities for researchers, support collaborative research at Dal, and take further steps to advance our education programs.”

For more on IRM, visit its website.


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