Whether it is teaching a classroom of students, working on cutting-edge projects in a laboratory, mentoring young potential engineers, or helming a Tickle College of Engineering (TCE) research center, Dr. Claudia Rawn, a University of Tennessee–Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) Joint Faculty member and an assistant professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering (MSE), makes it all look easy.
Rawn was born and brought up in Marion, Virgina, a rural town in the southwestern part of the state. She excelled in math and science in high school and decided to major in engineering. While attending Virginia Tech for her bachelor’s degree, she took an introduction to materials science and engineering class and immediately became interested in the field.
Rawn received her BS in materials engineering in 1986 from Virginia Tech, her MS in chemistry in 1991 from George Mason University and her PhD in materials science and engineering in 1995 from the University of Arizona.
Rawn started her professional career as a materials research engineer at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Ceramics Division. She had a two-year international stint as a postdoctoral researcher in the Ceramics Department at the “Jozef Stefan” Institute, Ljubljana, Slovenia, before coming to Tennessee in 1997 to work as a postdoctoral researcher at ORNL’s Metals and Ceramics Division, High Temperature Materials Laboratory, Diffraction User Center.
In 2002, Rawn was named a senior research and development staff member at ORNL. She also served as a research and development staff member for four years in the lab’s Materials Science and Technology Division. Rawn joined the UT-MSE faculty in 2002.
“I had been working as a staff member at ORNL for several years and was thinking back on when I worked at NIST. During my time there, we often had students from the University of Maryland come work for ten hours or so during the semester, over winter and spring breaks and the summer,” Rawn said. “After about a year they were well trained and over the years you could really build up a great working relationship with them. I wanted to explore this with students from UT and ended up with a Joint Faculty position between UT and ORNL.”
Some of Rawn’s current research is primarily based on her initial work at NIST, where she began the journey of experimentally determining the phase equilibria of various ceramic systems. Another one of her primary research areas is using neutron powder diffraction to understand mixed methane-carbon dioxide gas hydrates. The exchange of CO2 for CH4 in natural gas hydrates could potentially produce energy from untapped sources while at the same time sequestering CO2. In addition to the energy and environmental aspects the solid solution of (CH4)1-x(CO2)x – 5.75H2O provides a framework inclusion structure that enables the scientific study of how two molecules that differ greatly in their bonding, shape, coordination, and molecular weight can influence the structure and properties of the compound and interact with the framework that occludes the molecules.
“My graduate students and I are also working on using time dependent low temperature X-ray powder diffraction to better understand the phenomena of anomalous preservation and the kinetics of hydrate dissociation,” Rawn added.
At ORNL, Rawn uses the instruments at the High Flux Isotope Reactor (HFIR) and the Spallation Neutron Source (SNS) for characterizing materials by neutron powder diffraction. She also uses some of the X-ray diffraction instruments with special environment chambers at the Center for Nanophase Materials Science. Rawn also focuses on mentoring the next generation of engineers through the annual Materials Camp, a summer program for high school students interested in the field, and her latest initiative, the Research and Instructional Strategies for Engineering Retention (RISER), a new program at UT funded through a National Science Foundation (NSF) Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) Talent Expansion Program.
“The goal of the program is to recruit and retain students in STEM fields. We looked at retention since we already have students that are interested in being STEM majors,” Rawn said. “We then looked at groups in the college that had lower retention rates. The two ‘at risk’ populations were identified as freshmen who do not qualify to begin the Engineering Fundamentals (EF) series in their fall semester due to ACT math scores less than 28 (keep in mind that university-wide the average ACT score is a 27 so these are pretty high caliber students) and women in the honors program. The RISER undergraduates research assistants (URAs) portion of the program focuses on retaining women in the honors program by involving them in undergraduate research. Both the URAs and the URA mentors are really pleased with their experiences.”
The RISER program aims to increase the retention of the former group through two initiatives. The first initiative creates an entirely new branch of the EF program to: 1) build a social community for these students by providing them with increased opportunities to interact with TCE faculty and other engineering students; and 2) create specialized sections of pre-calculus directed exclusively at TCE majors.
The second initiative encourages these students to take and pass the math placement test, allowing them to enter the EF program in the fall semester. Rawn also recently took over the management of the college’s Center for Materials Processing (CMP), a State of Tennessee Center of Excellence. CMP’s objective is to develop significant research and academic programs that address the specific needs to American industry in the field of materials.
Dr. Carl McHargue, who has been director of the CMP since it was established in 1985, plans to retire soon. On January 1, 2012, Rawn became the CMP Associate Director and began learning about the center’s operations from McHargue. Rawn was named director of the CMP on July 1, 2012.
“It is a pleasure to work with Carl McHargue and I have learned a lot since January,” Rawn commented. “CMP funds are matched by support from industry and governmental agencies and are primarily used to support both graduate and undergraduate students and for the purchase or upgrade of equipment. Industrial support is provided through CMP memberships, research contracts, and gifts. Materials of interest include materials used in advanced energy systems, including materials found as components in the solar and nuclear industries, and materials used in high performance applications including materials found as components in the aerospace and refractories industries. Biomaterials are also a focal point of many of the researchers associated with the CMP.”
Although her hectic schedule and multiple commitments keep her constantly on the go, Rawn wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I love what I am doing now! I hope during the coming years that the RISER program is a resounding success, moving to the stage where many of the parts we have implemented are becoming institutionalized. I also hope that I will take the CMP in some interesting new directions while continuing to support graduate fellowships and undergraduate research,” Rawn said. “If I get pretty efficient at doing these two things I hope have time to get in the lab and make samples, characterize them, and write peer reviewed manuscripts. I also really enjoy teaching so I hope to continue to be in the classroom.”