The Stone Age, the Bronze Age…the Silicon Age. We name eras by the materials that define them. And those materials define so much of what’s possible in our lives: drive a car; land on Mars; talk and text across thousands of miles; store, transmit, and manipulate data; produce, store, and distribute energy. Materials scientists and engineers are at the very center of imagining and delivering progress. Cornell has long been a leader in the field, and our MS&E graduates are in demand in every sector and industry.
The field of Materials Science and Engineering is broad and multidisciplinary, building on fundamentals of physics, chemistry, and biology. We manipulate mechanical, electrical, optical, magnetic, and chemical properties to create and improve the materials from which all engineered objects are made.
Our field is changing rapidly. While we remain heavily engaged in core Materials Science disciplines including polymers, ceramics, and semiconductors, at Cornell we are also leading the way in a dramatic transformation of the field. Increasingly, we employ an integrated approach in exploring and engineering materials, using our unique perspectives and expertise to help solve some of the world’s most pressing problems. We intend to have a powerful impact on the sustainability of our planet and the health of our economy.
To achieve these goals, we have established major research initiatives in Energy Production and Storage, Electronics and Photonics, Bio-inspired Materials and Systems, and Green Technologies. We are well positioned to remain at the forefront of these and other emerging areas because of the strength of our department, the vast intellectual and facilities resources across Cornell, and our well established mindset of continually pushing the boundaries.
To learn more, we invite you to explore our approach to these key questions:
- What do materials scientists and engineers do?
- What is it like to study MSE?
- Who majors in MSE at Cornell, and where do they go after graduation?
- What other resources and contacts can provide more insight?
What do Materials Scientists & Engineers do?
All engineered products – from airplanes to musical instruments, alternative energy sources to ecologically-friendly manufacturing processes, medical devices to artificial tissues, computer chips to data storage media, and many more – are made from materials. Today’s materials scientists and engineers change and improve these. In fact, new and altered materials are often at the heart of product innovation in highly diverse applications. Materials scientists work in all industries as well as in academia and research institutions on a wide range of life-improving endeavors.
In our work, we strive to understand and manipulate the molecular structure of materials, since the arrangement of atoms and molecules is what creates their mechanical, electrical, optical, magnetic, and chemical properties. One of the newest technologies available to us is nanotechnology, which enables us to tailor the structure of materials at billionth-of-a-meter scale.
At Cornell, materials scientists and engineers have excellent access to some unique and extraordinary tools and facilities, which means that researchers and students here can undertake work that can be done at very few other places in the world. Among these are Cornell NanoScale Science & Technology Facility (CNF), which provides unique, state-of-the-art facilities for nanofabrication, and Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source (CHESS), with its multifaceted research and development facilities.
What is it like to study MS&E?
Materials Science and Engineering is an inherently interdisciplinary field. We study the relationships among structure, properties, synthesis, and performance of materials. Specifically,
- Structure: We study how materials are made from the atom up. Atoms can be combined into molecules, crystals, or amorphous networks, and much of our work today is at these levels.
- Properties: We determine how the properties of materials are controlled by their structure and devise ways to make materials better.
- Synthesis: We figure out how to make materials better and cheaper. With the fine control offered by nanotechnology, we can manipulate individual atoms.
- Performance: Ultimately, we work to make materials that perform better in all possible applications.
You’ll find specific course requirements for our undergraduate curriculum, and requirements for the M.Eng., M.S., and Ph.D. degree programs in the appropriate program descriptions. Whether you choose MSE as an undergraduate major or whether you enter one of our graduate degree programs with a background in MSE or some other field, you will share some common experiences.
Materials Science and Engineering requires a deep knowledge of fundamentals. It incorporates mathematics, physics, chemistry, and increasingly biology, as well as skill sets from all the engineering disciplines – all of which are needed to understand how materials work and how they can be improved. Beyond these basics, you’ll master knowledge in these areas:
- Structure of Materials to understand what kinds of structures are possible in materials. Beyond the basics, we offer numerous course options that provide critical background for various specializations.
- Properties of Materials involves understanding the mechanical and chemical behavior of materials to learn what is possible today and to get the skills to generate what might be possible in the future.
- Laboratory Experience is a big part of becoming a Materials Scientist. Our undergraduates get direct, hands-on experience in several MSE courses in their first three years, and participate in either an advanced senior lab program or undertake independent leading-edge research with a faculty member in their fourth year. Graduate students are heavily involved in research and have access to Cornell’s world-class laboratories and facilities.
- Materials Specialization enables you to gain greater understanding of specific classes of materials: biomaterials, electronic materials, polymers, ceramics, or metals.
- Applications Specialization involves study of how materials are used in five strategic technological areas that will be important in the future: biotechnology and life sciences, energy and the environment, nanotechnology, information science and technology, and materials research. In addition, you may elect to prepare for leadership in the field by studying technology management and ethics
Who majors in MS&E at Cornell, and where do they go after graduation?
Who majors in MSE? We welcome students of varied educational backgrounds from across the U.S. and around the world into our department. Some undergraduates arrive having already chosen this major, while others explore a variety of interests – largely through the College of Engineering, but sometimes other areas – before declaring MSE as their major.
In our graduate programs, we've had highly successful students come from undergraduate programs in MSE, and also with degrees in one of the sciences, mathematics, another engineering field, and occasionally another discipline altogether. Since our field is interdisciplinary, students find their special niches and interests, and we ensure that they surround their special interests with the appropriate depth and breadth of knowledge.
Where do they go? Cornell MSE graduates with bachelor's degrees land positions with competitive, first-year engineering salaries and attend highly ranked graduate schools. Those who complete master's and doctoral degrees go on to excellent positions in academia, research, and industry – and their earnings, too, on average exceed those of individuals with MS&E degrees from many other institutions. The College of Engineering Career Center staff survey each class and track respondents' destinations and salaries. Since every technology depends on materials, MSE graduates are in demand in every technology sector. The broad, interdisciplinary approach of MSE is also ideal preparation for technology-oriented careers in business, law, or medicine, as well as in academia and research.
Here are just a few of the prestigious positions held by Cornell MSE alumni:
- Founder of high-tech start-ups (including Protonex, which produces advanced fuel cell power sources and Kionix, which manufactures micromachined inertial sensors )
Paul Osenar, Protonex
Gregory Galvin, Kionix
- University Faculty (including MIT, RPI and UPenn) Karen Winey
- Corporate Vice President (Xerox) Yonn Rasmussen
- Astronaut (NASA)
More information and contacts
What Other Resources and Contacts Can Provide More Insight?
If you want to expand your understanding of the field of materials science and engineering, here are some resources we recommend:
ONLINE, you may find these items valuable:
- The article on Materials Engineering on Wikipedia
- An online book, Materials Science and Engineering for the 1990s: Maintaining Competitiveness in the Age of Materials, particularly the first chapter, What Is Materials Science and Engineering?
Books of particular interest include these very readable volumes:
The Substance of Civilization, by Stephen L. Sass, Arcade Publishing (1999). Prof. Sass is an Emeritus member of the Cornell MS&E Department. This book discusses the symbiotic relationship between culture and the evolution of technology as determined by materials science. Sass bridges the divide between history and science as he explains the unique properties of such key substances as clay, iron, glass, polymers, and silicon, as well as how they have affected every aspect of civilization, from warfare to religion, politics, education, art, and economics.
The New Science of Strong Materials, or Why You Don't Fall Through the Floor, by J.E. Gordon, Princeton University Press (2006). J.E. Gordon, a professor at the University of Reading, provides this biographical narrative of the discovery of why some materials are strong, and some are not. This book is highly regarded as being both entertaining and educational.
Why Things Break: Understanding the World by the Way It Comes Apart, by Mark Eberhart, Three Rivers Press (2004). Eberhart, a professor at the Colorado School of Mines, explains why things break and what materials scientists are doing to make materials stronger and tougher. Why can you bend a piece of taffy into all kinds of shapes, while a peppermint stick breaks if you push on the middle of it? Why does adding carbon to iron make the resulting metal - steel - stronger, whereas adding sulfur brittles it, making it more liable to break?
Stuff: The Materials the World Is Made Of, by Ivan Amato, Harper Perennial (1998). Amato is a science writer. This easy-to-read book provides a history of the effect of new materials on society.
We always welcome your questions. Here are contacts for our undergraduate program in MSE.
Contacts for the Undergraduate Program:
Materials Science & Engineering
210 Bard Hall
Ithaca, NY 14853-1501
Assoc. Prof. Chekesha Watson
Director of Undergraduate Studies
128 Bard Hall
Prof. Christopher "Kit" Umbach
Assistant Director of Undergraduate Studies
114 Thurston Hall
210A Bard Hall