In 1943, Franklin D. Roosevelt was president, World War II was in full swing and a young man named Hans Conrad was embarking on a career as a materials science researcher.
Sixty-eight years later, Conrad comes to the lab every day, publishes top-notch papers and tries to figure out the physical and mechanical properties of the materials that make up the world we live in.
In the past seven decades, Conrad, a professor emeritus of materials science and engineering, has worked on aluminum alloys for aircraft, cold-welding materials in the vacuum of space, superconductivity and lasers.
“I’m always impressed with his enthusiasm for science and how sharp he is,” says colleague Dr. Carl Koch. “He’s made major contributions to many areas of materials science and in the past 20 years has been the leader in studying the effects of electrical or magnetic fields on materials behavior.”
Now in his late 80s, Conrad has published several papers in the past year on how electric fields could revolutionize the ceramics industry. He found that by applying a small electric field, it’s possible to make stronger ceramics in less time, with less energy.
Not bad considering he retired from NC State 18 years ago.
Why does Conrad continue to work?
“The major driving force is my strong interest in science,” he says. “Also, continuing to do research provides a daily goal. And, I enjoy working with the students.”
Conrad has worked with ceramics off and on since the 1960s, including research on ceramic heat shields for the space program, but now he’s focused on learning more about how electric fields could change the ceramics field.
“That’s what research is about: Every time you answer one question, you open up 10 other questions,” he said in a 2010 Raleigh News & Observer interview. “It could take the rest of my life.”
Conrad’s work has earned notice from his peers worldwide. ASM International, a prominent materials science and research society, announced last month that Conrad will be awarded the ASM Gold Medal for 2012, given to a single researcher each year. It recognizes “outstanding knowledge and great versatility in the application of science to the fields of materials science and engineering, as well as exceptional ability in the diagnosis and solution of diversified materials problems.”
Conrad says mentors and fellow researchers have contributed to his lifelong love of science, including colleague Dr. Jay Narayan, who’s encouraged him to remain active in research.
On the subject of retirement, Conrad likes to paraphrase Gen. Douglas MacArthur: “Old professors never retire; they just research away.”
Photo above by John Rottet, courtesy of the News & Observer.