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Professional Affairs: Feature Vol. 59, No.2, pp. 22-25

Following in Their Footsteps: Tales from
Materials Science and Engineering Families


About the January 2005 Issue



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The print and/or PDF versions of the article can be acquired via the TMS Document Center.


Figure 1
Figure 1. Cate Brinson and her father, Hal Brinson, in Cate’s office working on a book on polymers and viscoelasticity, which they hope to finish this year.

Figure 2
Figure 2. Richard D. Hagni and his daughter, Ann M. Hagni, at Ann’s Ph.D. graduation from the University of Missouri–Rolla. Richard oversaw Ann’s Ph.D. work in geology with an emphasis on materials characterization.

Figure 3
Figure 3. Robert D. Shull (left), a materials scientist with the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and his father, Clifford G. Shull, at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm shortly before Clifford was awarded the 1994 Nobel Prize in Physics.

Figure 4
Figure 4. Krishan Chawla (left) and his son, Nik Chawla, at a TMS meeting. Krishan and Nik are both active members of the TMS Composite Materials Committee, which Nik currently chairs.







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2006 The Minerals, Metals & Materials Society


As a child, James Staley, Jr., was amazed at how his dad could fix anything around the house—cars, televisions, dishwashers—and he asked, “How could someone do that?”

His father answered, “It takes an engineer.”

James (Jim) Staley, Sr., was chief scientist for high-strength materials and technical director at Alcoa Technical Center until his retirement in 1998. His son, who goes by J.T., eventually followed his father’s career path and has now been working in the field of metallurgy for approximately 20 years.

Through example and encouragement, many professionals within the materials science and engineering community have inspired the young people closest to them to pursue careers in science and engineering: their children. A look at a few of these families reveals that participation did not begin with a forceful push, but with a subtle nudge toward a career that matched their natural abilities.


During the summers when his children were growing up, Richard Hagni, then a professor of geology and geophysics at the University of Missouri–Rolla (UMR), did consulting field work for industry, taking his family to various sites throughout the country for his work. His daughter, Ann, now a senior scientist and manager for the microscopy group of a consulting firm, remembers helping out on these expeditions.

“I helped out with bagging samples and things like that, but I don’t think I ever got paid,” said Ann, whose brothers often helped with field work as well. “It was a wonderful, wonderful childhood. I was able to experience a lot.”

When Subodh Das’s job as a metallurgical engineer took him to places like China, Africa, Australia, South America, and Europe, he would often take his family along, including his son, Som, who showed a natural ability for math and science at a very young age.

“I wanted him to see some of the glamour,” said Subodh, who once took Som with him to Iceland to visit a highly automated geothermal power plant. Subodh always encouraged his son to develop his skills in science and math by taking him to visit plants and participate in engineering activities for kids.

“Som was always a pretty good handyman,” said Subodh. “He was always good with Legos and fixing things and mathematically he was pretty sharp. He was already inclined; I just showed him that if he becomes an engineer, this is what he’d be doing.”

Som, who said he never considered being anything but an engineer, earned a degree in materials science and engineering, with a focus on metallurgy, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and is now a continuous improvement manager at a Novelis rolled product plant in West Virginia. “I liked the fact that my dad got to move around a lot,” said Som, who enjoys travel. “And he had a good time doing it, so it didn’t seem like work.”

For Nik Chawla, whose father Krishan teaches materials science and engineering to college students, it was the lifestyle of a professor that drew him to engineering. Growing up, Nik often went to work with his father in the lab.

“It was never explicitly put into my head that this was a great thing to do,” said Nik. “But I saw that you got to be your own boss, you got to work with young people, and you get to wear sneakers and comfortable clothing.”

He also appreciated the concept of tenure. While other kids worried when their fathers were laid off, Nik knew his father had a job for life. Of course, the idea of passing on knowledge appealed to him as well.

“I thought, ‘This is not a bad lifestyle,’” said Nik, who is now an associate professor at Arizona State University.


Most of the children who followed their parents’ career paths never felt pressure to become scientists or engineers. Far more often, they used words like support and encouragement to describe their parents’ influence on their choice of careers.

Despite the fact that both of her parents were college professors at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, L. Catherine (Cate) Brinson never felt pressure to follow either of their career paths. Her mother taught math and her father taught in the engineering science and mechanics department where Cate did her undergraduate studies. “They encouraged me to do anything that I wanted to do, as long as I was happy,” said Cate. “I think that was the best strategy.”

Though she managed to avoid having either one of them as professors, Cate found her later research work had a lot in common with work her father, Hal Brinson, had done (Figure 1). Hal had worked with polymer composite materials and Cate, now a professor in the mechanical engineering and materials science and engineering departments at Northwestern University, has worked in both the composite and nanocomposite areas.

Cate has three children of her own now, with a fourth on the way. Does she expect them to follow in the footsteps of their mother and grandfather? “I’m going to try to handle it like my parents did,” she said. “They never pushed, but they always encouraged.”

When Linda Schadler entered graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania, she found herself often turning to her father for support.

“It was the first time that it was really obvious that I was in a male-dominated environment,” said Linda, who had already earned an undergraduate degree in materials science and engineering from Cornell University. “Every time I made mistakes, which everybody does, somehow they seemed more terrible.”

When she got frustrated, Linda called her father, Harvey Schadler, who had also earned a bachelor’s degree in materials science and engineering from Cornell as well as a doctoral degree from Purdue.

“I used to call home talking about quitting and he could have easily said, ‘Why don’t you do that?’ But he never did. That’s part of what gave me the encouragement to continue,” said Linda. “If you look at the statistics, a huge number of women in science and engineering had supportive fathers.”

She graduated with a Ph.D. in materials science and engineering from the University of Pennsylvania and is now a professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.


It was encouragement from her father, Richard, that brought Ann Hagni back to UMR for her Ph.D. after several years working in the petroleum industry. Ann, like Cate Brinson, was to take courses in a department where her father taught. But unlike Cate, Ann would be taking classes taught by her father. She was planning to pursue a Ph.D. in her father’s area of expertise: geology. So for the first time, she enrolled in his courses.

“He was harder on me because I was his daughter,” said Ann.

“But all the students thought that I was easier on her,” said Richard Hagni, who felt he treated her no differently than any other students.

For Ann, the first year was difficult working and studying with her father, but once she learned his style, they worked together very well. He allowed her to work independently but was there to provide suggestions when she got stuck.

“I really miss working for him now,” she said.

She completed her Ph.D. in 1995 under her father’s direction, a feat which, to the best of their knowledge, had never been done before at UMR (Figure 2).

The Hagnis have been active members of and occasional chairs of the former TMS Process Mineralogy Committee (now the Materials Characterization Committee) and have co-authored approximately 15 papers together, Richard estimates.

“Ann is essentially doing very similar work to what I do, applying the microscope to study various industrial problems,” said Richard. “Although she’s following in my footsteps, she’s now making footsteps of her own.”

Many materials students had parents who taught at the schools they attended. But most avoided meeting their parents in the classroom.

During his undergraduate years at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Robert (Bob) Shull, group leader of magnetic materials at the National Institute of Standards and Technology and 2006 TMS vice president, never had his father, a physics professor at the school, for class. But he did attend one of his father’s lectures, a speech interspersed with periods when the lights would be dimmed to show slides.

Having stayed up all night the previous night writing an English paper, Bob made it through the first two slide portions of the talk, but nodded off when the lights were turned off a third time.

“Next thing I know people are standing up and walking out,” he said. “My dad said he was flattered that I came, but asked that I please not snore through the class next time.”

It was probably for the best that they did not have classes together, Bob remembers, as his father had earned the nickname of Flunk-’em-all Shull among his students.

Krishan Chawla was teaching at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology when Nik was a student there. In his senior year, Nik signed up for two classes with his father: mechanical metallurgy and composites. Coincidentally (or not), his father decided to take a sabbatical that semester.


Having a well-known parent working in the same field often means instant recognition and important connections. It can also mean a lot of expectations.

“Materials is one of the smallest engineering fields, so a lot of people know each other,” said Jim Staley.

J.T. Staley didn’t see any drawbacks to this. His father’s connections helped him get into graduate school. When J.T. graduated from the mining engineering program at South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, the demand for mining engineers began to drop, leaving J.T. with an engineering degree and no job prospects. His father recommended grad school and put in some calls to people he knew at good materials science and engineering graduate programs. Eventually J.T. was accepted at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

“That’s the good thing about wanting to go into metallurgy with a famous metallurgical dad,” said J.T. “All these connections.”

Som Das has found that many people know his father’s name at the corporate level of his company.

“It’s a good conversation starter,” says Som, who otherwise feels the connection with his father has a pretty neutral effect on his career. “He’s pretty well respected.”

It was the respect Harvey Schadler had earned in the field of materials science and engineering that led Linda Schadler to keep her maiden name.

“I’ve changed my name legally, but I haven’t changed it professionally because everybody likes Harvey Schadler,” said Linda. “It’s a good name to have."

Bob Shull had a harder act to follow than most. His father, Clifford G. Shull, won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1994 for his work on neutron scattering techniques (Figure 3).

By the time the prize was awarded, the younger Shull had already established his own reputation working with magnetic materials.

“For me, it was good that he did not receive the Nobel Prize until quite a bit later in his career,” said Robert. “I know a lot of people—when they have this sort of connection—feel a need to compete and I didn’t feel that need because I was already pretty well established in my area.”

This left him free to enjoy his father’s success.

“These are individuals I’d held up on pedestals all my life and I never expected to be related to someone like that,” said Shull. “When his Nobel Prize was announced, he really loved receiving it, but it was never something he really worked toward getting. It was really wonderful to have an individual like that as a parent and mentor.”

Clifford Shull died in 2001 at the age of 85, seven years after receiving the Nobel Prize.

While shared names can result in valuable connections and increased expectations, sometimes, they just result in confusion.

Nik Chawla was once asked by a colleague— who had read his work but never met him in person—to write an article for an encyclopedia. When the two finally met, the colleague looked confused and told Nik, “You know, I thought that you were shorter and grayer and you had a little goatee.”

Similarly, J.T. Staley attended an aluminum conference in Norway with a group of people his father had met 20 years earlier. One attendee looked at J.T.’s name tag and said, “I thought you were a lot older.”


Sometimes parents and children work together better than other colleagues. A few years back, Cate Brinson and her father, Hal Brinson, a retired professor of mechanical engineering, began work on a book on polymers and viscoelasticity. The book benefits from the varying perspectives brought by two generations.

“My mother said I was the only person he could write a book with,” said Cate. “The writing process brings up many disagreements, but we survived my teenage years, so we can always work it out.”

With Cate in Illinois and Hal in Texas, work on the book is a slow process, but they hope to complete it this year when Hal comes for a visit.

In 2005, father/son team Nik and Krishan Chawla completed their first book together, Metal-Matrix Composites (which can be purchased through the on-line TMS Document Center at They plan to collaborate on additional projects in the future and their paths often cross professionally through their active participation in the composites field and the TMS Composite Materials Committee, of which Nik is currently chair (Figure 4).

“I’d like people to understand that the father/son thing is more at home. Once we’re out there at TMS meetings and working together, it’s like any other two professional colleagues who work in the same area and work together well,” said Krishan. “At home, he calls me Papa, but with colleagues, he refers to me as Krish.”

“That’s the only time I can get away with it,” Nik added.


Though his father was not trained as an engineer, Rusty Gray calls him an engineer at heart. “He is very much an engineer in the way he thinks about things and the way he looks at things,” said Rusty, a laboratory fellow at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Rusty grew up doing home remodeling and repair projects with his father, and has passed the tradition on to his son, Alex, who started at Case Western Reserve University’s engineering program in the fall of 2005. Having a father in the materials science and engineering field has helped Alex to have a clearer direction than many college freshmen.

“I’ve been exposed to the field for so many years that I knew what materials engineering was, I knew that it existed, which isn’t the case with most freshman engineering students,” said Alex.

Alex has already joined the Material Advantage student program offered by TMS and partnering societies and plans to declare a concentration in materials engineering in the spring. He spent his Christmas break working in Los Alamos National Lab’s materials department (though not with his father) and has already been to a TMS meeting with his father, who serves on the TMS Board of Directors.

Rusty encouraged his son toward engineering, after seeing that, from a young age, Alex thought like an engineer.

“When he had something like a construction building set, it wasn’t very long before he threw out the plans that came with it and was building other way cool things with his own ideas and plans,” said Rusty. “He’s been very mechanically minded since he was very young. I saw a natural ability.”

Though it may be too soon to tell for Linda Schadler’s nine- and seven-year old children, they both show an aptitude toward science and have been exposed to the field. Linda’s children were test subjects for the Molecularium project at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, which is designed to introduce kids to ideas such as atoms and molecules. Her seven year- old daughter has not only attended Linda’s programs on engineering for high school girls, she has helped to teach the girls about polymers.

“They haven’t had any choice but to learn what a polymer is,” said Linda.


Krishan Chawla recalls the frustration his son, Nik, would express when he first started going to professional society meetings. Nik would come home and tell his father, “It’s not easy to follow in your footsteps. No matter where I go, they see my last name and ask if I’m related to Krish Chawla.”

Then, in 2000, Krishan was invited to speak at a meeting in Spain. The conference organizer introduced Krishan as a professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham—and Nik Chawla’s dad.

“From here on, I’m known as Nik’s father,” Krishan said. “So I told him, you can be at ease now.”

Kelly Roncone is news editor for JOM.