July 19, 2018

Life As A Material Scientist

Keep Calm

I recently attended one of the post graduate socialising events for PhD students in my university and had an interesting debate/conversation with a medical student. We started talking about ebola and when I stressed the importance of materials scientists in the fight against ebola he laughed. Now this showed me how ignorant he was because even the attire that the medical staff wore are made by materials scientist and if we are talking about isolating these people and also reducing the spread of this disease then we surely have to think about protecting those who come in contact with them. Careful selection of materials that allow health professionals and maybe even relatives to visit these people will be needed and who better to consult, than the material scientist? After showing him the folly of his ways he made the mistake of trying to down play the importance of Materials Scientist and how medicine is more important. Now this made my blood boil and here is why.

Materials science, also commonly known as materials science and engineering, is an interdisciplinary field which deals with the discovery and design of new materials. Materials are essential part of life because we depend on them on a daily basis. Materials are multi-purpose, from making complicated things such as buildings and heart valves to creating film scenes and fashionable clothing. The human body is an assembly of different materials from hard materials such as bone, fingernails to soft materials like muscles and skin. Most people do not appreciate the importance of materials scientist but every day we come into contact with many thousands of manufactured objects that are essential to modern life: the vehicles that we travel in; the clothes that we wear; the machines in our homes and offices; the sport and leisure equipment we use; the computers and phones that we can’t live without; and the medical technology that keeps us alive. Everything we see and use is made from materials derived from the earth: metals, polymers, ceramics, semiconductors and composites.

Now imagine a world without Materials scientist? The world as you know it and all the advancements in it WON’T EXIST. Take for instance sanitation. Sanitation is the hygienic means of promoting health through prevention of human contact with the hazards of wastes as well as the treatment and proper disposal of sewage wastewater. According to ‘water.org’, more than 3.4 million people die each year from water, sanitation and hygiene related ailments and almost 99 percent of these deaths happen in developing countries. UNICEF claims 1800 children under the age of five die every day from diarrhoeal diseases related to water, sanitation and hygiene with Nigeria and India accounting for more than a third of these deaths. Now imagine if this was scaled up to the whole world? Thankfully, Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) pipes have made it cheaper (compared to metal pipes) to transfer clean water into our homes and also improve the waste management of our homes. I grew up in Ghana where people use to carry human waste on the head and dispose of it somewhere. The capital city of Ghana suffers from cholera year in year out due to poor sanitation.

Scalpels, syringes, bottles, knee implants, heart valves and basically everything the medical practitioners use including the very building is made possible thanks to the  materials scientist. So it is a shame when the person that benefits from your hard work belittles your work.

As you read this article, thank the materials scientist for the inventions of silicon chips that makes it easier to make computers/phones small and cheap enough for all of us to own one.

When you get into any form of transportation from cars to aeroplanes, thank us for not making you walk or get on a horse but inventing new materials such as composites and alloys which have improved safety and made your journey comfortable.

Anytime you get home and put on your heater or air-condition remember that your home; from the choice of building material to the appliances within are possible because a materials scientist spent their time and knowledge in selecting the right materials fit for that purpose.

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