August 08, 2017

Student journey: Discovering a love for materials engineering after four Army tours

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daniel craven 2017Staff Sgt. Daniel CravenAfter 10 years in the U.S. Army and tours in Iraq, Afghanistan, Djibouti and Korea, Staff Sgt. Daniel Craven decided to leave full-time military service and finish his college degree. But what major?

A friend mentioned biomedical engineering, which Craven thought might help veterans. “A couple of guys I know walk with canes because of shrapnel, and they are in their 20s.”

Craven became a UAB School of Engineering student, though his goal was still unclear. A class in Engineering Materials, MSE 280, changed that. It was taught by Robin Foley, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering.

“I had never heard of materials engineering in my life,” said Craven, now a UAB senior. “Robin Foley — she’s my favorite teacher. She’s the right kind of crazy, very into her subject and an exuberant teacher. It made me fall in love with materials because it was fascinating.”

The class looked at how three categories of materials — metals and alloys, ceramics, and polymers — are made and how to test their mechanical properties and behavior.

This summer, Craven won a stipend from the UAB Department of Physics Research Experiences for Undergraduates program to do full-time materials research in the lab of Thomas Vinoy, Ph.D., assistant professor of polymers and health care in the engineering school. Funding for Craven and three other undergraduate researchers came from a NASA-Alabama Space Grant Consortium, Research Experiences for Undergraduates award to UAB.

Craven used a three-dimensional bioprinter made by BioBots to make small polymer scaffolds that can hold cells for tissue engineering. The scaffolds, less than half an inch thick, are biocompatible and biodegradable. Similar to the way concrete forms can hold concrete until it can harden, a scaffold can provide a backbone for human cells while they form strong bone, skin or cartilage.

Craven investigated how variables of pressure and temperature affected the bioprinting, and he examined the resulting scaffolds with a microscope and tested their flexure and tensile strength.

“I think good science is one of the most important things going on in the country right now,” Craven said.

The veteran, who calls New Orleans and Kansas City home, picked UAB for its location near Atlanta and Nashville, and also says a cousin graduated from the UAB Collat School of Business. “Birmingham is a cool town,” Craven said. “I see a lot of potential here.”

Craven says his future is polymers. He will either take the GRE and apply to graduate school or find work with a polymer company. Finishing his degree at UAB has also given him a chance to explore subjects, including initial study of both Chinese and French.

The NASA-Alabama Space Grant consortium has supported the Physics Research Experiences for Undergraduates program since 2005, and the National Science Foundation has supported it since 1997, says Yogesh Vohra, Ph.D., professor and University Scholar in the UAB Department of Physics, director of the UAB Center for Nanoscale Materials and Biointegration, and associate dean for Interdisciplinary and Creative Innovation, UAB College of Arts and Sciences.

“On average, $100,000 a year has been provided for the Physics Research Experiences for Undergraduates program by funding agencies since 1997,” Vohra said.

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