Innovator of the Week: Krista Viola

Investigating Material Science

Written by Zoey Gould, B.ASc.

car fire 1

Forensic engineering is like the CSI of technology, offering a dynamic and challenging work environment. Each case is a unique mystery to be solved. Krista Viola is a Forensic Engineer-In-Training at R.J. Shirer & Associates Inc., and is completing her Master’s Degree in Electron Microscopy of Nanostructured Materials in Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Toronto.

Forensic engineering is a multidisciplinary filed, requiring a diverse understanding of science. Knowledge demands vary from case to case, including elements of organic and inorganic chemistry, material science, and biology. Krista points out that many of our best designs come from nature. A growning field of design based on nautre, known as “biomimetics” or “biomimicry,”looks to biology for inspiration.

ZG: Can you describe Material Science in your own words, and explain how you got interested this field?

KV: I take Materials Science as an approach to develop new materials for future needs, as well as to discover new applications and designs for materials we use today. It incorporates physics, chemistry, and even biology. I got interested in Materials Science at a young age – I would purposely snap my toys in half to see what they were made from. In order to understand how or why something fractures, it’s important to learn how it was made.

ZG: Can you describe Forensic Engineering and the type of work that you do as a Forensic EIT?

KV: Forensic engineering looks at the failure modes of materials, components, or products. It answers the ‘Why?’ and ‘How?’ questions that arise when something does not perform as intended. For example, if an accident occurs that involves an aircraft, forensic engineers may be hired to determine the root cause of the accident. As a Forensic Engineer-In-Training, I help provide an unbiased opinion on a wide range of investigations such as vehicle accidents, residential fires, and product liability.

ZG: What type of background does someone need to become a Forensic Engineer?

KV: A scientific background is key.  Everyday, I use the first principles of science to develop and test my hypotheses. It also demands that you are not afraid to roll up your sleeves and get dirty. On site, a fire investigation is like an archaeological dig – it can be messy.

ZG: What are the most rewarding and most challenging parts of your job?

KV: Everyday brings a new challenge. You can investigate twenty different fire scenes and each one will have its own unique twist. It’s rewarding to know that forensic engineers aren’t only useful in determining how failures and accidents happen, but that we can help reduce the risk of future ones.

ZG: Can you give an example of a project that you worked on?

KV: Ceramic materials are known to have internal flaws, such as pores and inclusions. These flaws and additional factors such as surface cracks create locations of high, concentrated stress. Glass bottle recycling and processing methods have the ability to introduce defects. If the stress associated with these defects reaches a critical value, the component fails and may cause an injury.

beer bottle
Bottle fracture surface: the red arrow points to the origin of fracture, other arrows show crack propagation

KV: This Case Study involves an exploding bottle. When transferring bottles from their original box, one tapped against the bottle next to it. The adjacent bottle exploded, resulting in injury to the user. The fracture surfaces were analyzed, and optical microscopy was used to recognize a surface crack at the point of origin. This surface crack caused the bottle to fail. Factors such as the bottle’s wear marks and recycling background were used to determine that the crack was most probably introduced during the bottle recycling process, and the problem was not caught during manufacturing.

ZG: What piece of advice would you give aspiring engineers and technologists?

KV: I would tell them that it’s important to get involved in projects! You can build your own projects using an Arduino electronics kit (www.arduino.cc), and they have online tutorials. I use Arduino to test my research by collecting and transmitting data from a variety of sensors. Always ask questions and try to find out how things work. I believe that you don’t know a subject until you use it!

 

Biomimetics and biomimicry hyperlink: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biomimetics

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