Fulton Professor of materials science and engineering Nik Chawla is being recognized as a distinguished and well-respected member of his field by his alma mater, the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology (NMT). The award will be given at the school’s commencement ceremonies in May.
“It’s very humbling to be selected for this award,” Chawla says. “I have great memories of being an undergraduate there. It’s a small, but very rigorous engineering school where the professors really cared about teaching and we were all a big family. It’s really nice to be recognized by them.”
The New Mexico Tech Alumni Association selected Chawla for the 2016 Distinguished Alumni Achievement Award for his notable academic and research career.
Chawla has extensive achievements in his field, including two textbooks, more than 200 refereed journal papers, close to 400 presentations, and dozens of awards, honors, and advisory and editorial board positions. He’s also proud of his students and watching them succeed.
“One of the most rewarding things has been seeing the growth of students who have been in my group and seeing them have achievements of their own and doing well in their careers,” Chawla says. “That’s the great thing about academia; you work with bright young people and have the chance to make an impact on their lives.”
He credits the start to his success in research and academia to a high school science teacher, Roberta Spalding, and his father, who is also in the field of materials science (and was a professor at NMT). Chawla says they helped him find his way and provided a positive introduction to working with people in a lab and in higher education. The inspiration to pursue materials engineering came in part due to his interest in science blossoming at a time when superconductor materials were undergoing revolutionary developments.
Chawla earned his bachelor’s in materials engineering at NMT in 1993. He then obtained a master’s in metallurgical engineering at the University of Tennessee – Knoxville and a Ph.D. in materials science and engineering at the University of Michigan – Ann Arbor. He has retained his connection with NMT as a member of the school’s materials engineering department external advisory committee, where he contributes feedback and guidance in the curriculum, student needs, and helps place students in graduate schools or industry jobs.
“It’s nice to come back full circle,” Chawla says. “It’s really interesting to see how the labs and faculty have evolved and how things have changed at the school.”
Chawla began working at Arizona State University in 2000 and currently serves as director of the ASU interdisciplinary Mechanical Behavior of Materials Facility, as well as the new 4D Materials Science Center, in addition to his role as a professor.
His research focuses on looking at how materials behave under stress and deformation in multiple applications, including cyclic fatigue in automotive materials, fatigue and corrosion in naval and aircraft materials, and the effect of temperature and mechanical loads on electronic packaging. He and his team are currently using a technique called X-ray microtomography with a machine built by one of his graduate students through funding from the Security and Defense Systems Initiative.
“X-ray microtomography looks at the internal structure of a material at a very high resolution,” Chawla says. “We’re devising experiments so we can see how a material behaves and changes in real time as we apply loads. This will enable us to and design better materials for a variety of applications.”
Chawla thanks Arizona State University for being very supportive in providing cutting-edge facilities and equipment, and giving him the freedom to work in the areas he’s interested in, as there are always new challenges in materials science.
“The great thing about materials science is it’s always changing, with new tools, new techniques and new problems to work on so you never get bored.”