Regents approve new material science major

UW-Eau Claire just got the support it needs to launch a new academic program that could someday cure cancer.

The UW System Board of Regents approved Eau Claire’s comprehensive material science major at its meeting on Friday, which was the final authorization necessary to create the program.

Material science is a form of nanoscience that enables scientists to manipulate liquids and solids at a microscopic level.

Chemistry professor Marc McEllistrem said the major would probably be first launched in fall 2009.

Eau Claire’s Material Science Center, which was built in anticipation of the program in 2004, deals mostly with solids such as crystals, plastic, metals and ceramics. The three labs in the center allow students to study the structure and composition of various solids.

Through that manipulation, scientists can create new types of materials that could help make energy use more efficient or create new types of medicine.

Senior chemistry major John Tritsch explained material science as a blend of most scientific disciplines, especially chemistry and physics.

McEllistrem said some material scientists are attempting to create new lightweight materials that would allow vehicles to run on 100 miles per gallon. Material scientists could even cure cancer, McEllistrem said.

“Everything is made of materials. You can make anything better (with material science),” Tritsch said. “There’s literally nothing you can’t optimize.”

Most material science programs emphasize engineering to fabricate new composite materials, though Eau Claire is one of the few institutions to focus it curriculum on the scientific foundations on which engineering is based.

McEllistrem said he and co-director Doug Dunham need to plan curriculum for another eight or nine courses to complete the major.

Though the major will be established too late to benefit him, Tritsch said his collaborative research on material science and course work within his chemistry degree have prepared him well for graduate studies in material science engineering.

“I’d rather be trained in the sciences and catch up in the engineering aspect than vice versa,” Tritsch said, explaining that a strong grasp in scientific principles help in understanding engineering as a process better.

The major is independently funded through the $3 million state-approved NanoSTEM initiative, a partnership between Eau Claire, UW-Stout and the Chippewa Valley Technical College to promote nanoscience and nanotechnology in the Chippewa Valley. Nearly $2 million of the initiative supports Eau Claire’s material science program, according to a News Bureau press release.

As part of the program, McEllistrem said local businesses will have the opportunity to use Eau Claire’s Material Science Center’s nanoscience equipment and resources, including microscopes that read which individual materials are in a composite solid.

“The center has been focused on reaching out to area industry.”