Snapper Spotlight: Mark Atwater scores five-year career grant for metal foam research

Originally published February 17, 2015.

The word “nanotechnology” could intimidate nearly anyone in a liberal arts setting, but because of the efforts of Mark Atwater, Associate Professor in the Applied Engineering, Safety and Technology department, students will be able to research and experience all it has to offer.

Atwater grew up in Warren, Pa. and received his Bachelor’s degree in Manufacturing Engineering Technology from Pennsylvania College of Technology. Afterwards, he pursued a Master’s degree in Mechanical Engineering from University of New Mexico and his Doctorate in Materials Science at North Carolina State University.

He did not start his career with the intention of being a teacher—at least not initially. “Before coming to Millersville I was a postdoctoral materials research engineer at the US Army Research Laboratory,” Atwater said. “Teaching was something I was interested in, but I wasn’t sure it was the path I wanted to take right away.”

When he came to Millersville, he said he knew it was the right place. It was here that he and his students flourished, making proposals such as the “New Solid State Metal Foams Using Oxide Reduction and Intraparticle Expansion” successful.

“This particular grant is known as a CAREER grant, and is a five year award. That means I had to plan out every aspect five years in advance, including the research progression, equipment needs, student employment, and outreach and educational initiatives,” Atwater said. “It required thinking about what impact the research should have on the University, the local community and industry, and what the scientific value would be.”

This was the most recent proposal conducted by Atwater, and was subsequently the one that awarded Millersville a $540,420 grant towards the research of making metal foams more accessible and less costly by use of nanotechnology.

“Nanotechnology is loosely applied to structures around 100 nm or less. That’s about 1000 times smaller than the thickness of a hair. Even though the foamed material is easily visible, the underlying structure contains nanoscale features,” Atwater said. “This is expected to result in higher strength and surface area which will benefit applications.”

Only about 400 CAREER grants per year are awarded.Utilizing the faculty around him, namely René Muñoz, Director of Sponsored Programs and Research Administrations, who assisted him with guidance and resources, he was able to send through the proposal. “I wasn’t nervous, but I was cautiously optimistic,” Atwater said. “Many proposals are declined on the first submission, and it was very encouraging to have it awarded the first time through.”

This is only one of many projects Atwater is undertaking. “I also have research projects on synthesizing and applying carbon nanofibers, creating nonequilibrium and nanostructured metals and alloys for applications such as thermoelectrics and soft magnetics,” Atwater said. He also mentioned being in the end stages of writing a textbook, as well as writing another proposal that would grant Millersville University a scanning electron microscope.

Despite the fact that he has sent in many proposals, he said that his favorite proposal that was ever “accepted” was his wedding proposal to his wife, Cammie. “Getting money for research is nice, but it is a small part of  the bigger picture, and I’m fortunate to have someone so special and supportive,” Atwater said.

Atwater’s dedication to Millersville doesn’t just stop at proposals, textbooks and projects, however; he is also the adviser for the SME student group, which specializes in design and fabrication work. Anyone can join this club, regardless of major.

It can be stressful to decide upon a major; there are many factors to consider. For those who are struggling on a decision to join the STEM disciplines, Atwater urges students to start with what they’re interested in.

“It is difficult to know whether a program is the right fit from the beginning,” Atwater said. “… I began in manufacturing and then discovered more about science and engineering. That inspired me to go on. I did programs in three different areas, and I think the diversity has been beneficial.” He noted that it’s good to find someone in the field one’s interested in, and just start asking questions.

“It doesn’t matter what you major in. If you are willing to work hard, you will do well,” Atwater said. “Push yourself a little beyond what you think you’re ready for. If I thought too much about how hard the goals I set would be to reach, I probably wouldn’t pursue them. Instead, I focus on what I hope to achieve and work through the obstacles as they come… Of course, you need to plan, but don’t let planning be the only thing you do.”

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