What I am thinking: material scientist and bird watcher Lorna Gibson

Professor Lorna Gibson graduated in Civil Engineering from the University of Toronto and obtained her Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge. She was an Assistant Professor in Civil Engineering at the University of British Columbia for two years before moving to MIT, where she is currently the Matoula S. Salapatas Professor of Materials Science and Engineering. Her research interests focus on the mechanics of materials with a cellular structure such as engineering honeycombs and foams, natural materials such as wood, leaves and bamboo and medical materials such as trabecular bone and tissue engineering scaffolds. She is the co-author of Cellular Solids: Structure and Properties (with MF Ashby) and of Cellular Materials in Nature and Medicine (with MF Ashby and BA Harley).
Recent projects include studies of balsa as a model for bioinspired design of engineering materials and structural bamboo products, analogous to wood products such as oriented strand board. She teaches two subjects: Mechanical Behavior of Materials and Cellular Solids: Structure, Properties and Applications; both are also offered online through edX.
Gibson is a MacVicar Faculty Fellow, MIT’s top award for undergraduate teaching. She has served as Chair of the Gender Equity Committee in the School of Engineering, Chair of the Faculty, and Associate Provost at MIT.

Demi Fang: The theme of the conference is “Creativity in Structural Design.” How do you interpret this theme? What does it bring to mind?

Lorna Gibson: I’ve looked at a lot of natural materials. I look at how they behave mechanically and see what their natural mechanisms of deformation and failure are, and then to try to see what we can learn from those materials for engineering design. This bio-inspired design approach is one we share with a lot of other people.

Cellular structures in plants: cross-section of an iris leaf. (Microscopy: Don Galler)

DF: What methods do you use to fuel creativity? In what ways do you blend the technical and creative aspects of your work?

LG: I think creativity often arises from doing interdisciplinary things. You become an expert in one field, but then you look at other fields and see they have different ways of doing things: they look at problems differently, or they have different kinds of problems. The way you approach things in a different field makes you rethink in your own field. I think having interdisciplinary research and having people collaborate from different fields is one way that people can be creative.

Engineering honeycombs and foams: elastomeric polymers, undeformed (a, b) and deformed in-plane (c-f). L. J. Gibson and M. F. Ashby, Cellular Solids: Structure and Properties, 2 edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

DF: Describe the collaborations in your work.

LG: In our bamboo project, we collaborated with architects in Cambridge and with a wood scientist at the University of British Columbia. The architects were interested in large-scale members, thinking about how the members would be used in actual design and building codes. The wood scientist was interested in the processing of the bamboo; he had worked on the processing of wood composites like oriented strand board (OSB), the particle board, so he took what he knew about processing wood and applied it to the bamboo. Our contribution from MIT was looking at the material science of the bamboo—modeling the microstructure and the mechanical properties of the material. The nice thing about the project was that it went from looking at the microscopic structure of the bamboo, to looking at how you could process the bamboo, to looking at how you would actually use it in a building. It’s too difficult for a single person to span all those different areas of expertise, but by collaborating, we were able to do that.

Bamboo oriented strand board, fabricated by Dr. Greg Smith’s group at University of British Columbia.

DF: What are some pressing, interesting technical challenges that you anticipate in the future in your field?

LG: My field is cellular materials—porous materials like honeycombs and foams. There’s a lot of interest right now in lattice materials, these three-dimensional truss materials, and in how to optimize these materials, optimize their structure, optimize the material you make them from, make them at smaller length scales… I think there’s still a lot of work that remains to be done in that area. There’s also a lot of interest in natural cellular materials—we worked on bamboo, but there’s also trabecular bone, wood, and plant structures. Some of these have very complex structures and I think people will continue working on them.

Trabecular bone is porous bone found at the ends of long bones and within the vertebrae, skull, and pelvis. Micrograph of cross-sections of lumbar vertebrae of a 55-year-old woman (left) and an 86-year-old woman (right). S. Vajjhala, A. M. Kraynik, and L. J. Gibson, “A cellular solid model for modulus reduction due to resorption of trabeculae in bone,” J Biomech Eng, vol. 122, no. 5, pp. 511–515, Oct. 2000.

DF: Describe the impact of your work outside of academia.

LG: I’ve written several books on cellular solids and they’ve been quite widely used in industry. Outside of my research, I also worked a lot on equity issues for women here at MIT. Each of MIT’s five schools had a committee to help report on the status of women faculty at MIT; I chaired the committee in the school of Engineering. [These efforts resulted in the 2002 Reports of the Committees on the Status of Women Faculty.] I think the collective impact of all of those efforts really had a lot of effect at a lot of places, both in academia and in government and in industry. At the time, it got a tremendous amount of press. The president of MIT, Chuck Vest, had admitted that MIT had discriminated against women faculty, and he and his administration were willing to do things to change MIT. I think that got a lot of attention in lots of places. Is it perfect now? No, but when I look at what things were like when I was a student – not here, but in Toronto – back then, and what it was like when I came to MIT, and what it’s like now at MIT, it’s totally different.

Lorna Gibson (right) – photo credit (MITx)
DF: What advice would you give to your past self or to today’s students?

LG: When I was a graduate student [at the University of Cambridge], my adviser Mike Ashby had been interested in developing this project on cellular solids. He had had a couple of undergraduate students do a senior thesis project on it, but he couldn’t get any graduate students to work on it; nobody wanted to do it with him because it wasn’t a hot, trendy topic at the time (e.g. fracture mechanics, composites). I wasn’t thinking necessarily about becoming a professor and wasn’t worried too much about what I was going to do with it; it just seemed like a really interesting project. My background was in civil engineering, and the topic was like structures but on a tiny length scale. I worked on it because I thought it was a really interesting project. My thinking was that I’ll learn a lot, and whatever I learn I can apply to the next thing. I never really anticipated I would spend decades after that working on cellular solids! So you don’t always have to do the hot, trendy topic; it’s okay – almost better – to do what’s not hot and trendy because then you can make a big impact developing something new.

DF: How did you get into studying birds?

LG: I’m an amateur bird-watcher, but I like natural history and I like nature. When I was a student, somebody visited our lab and said that woodpeckers had a special cellular material that protected their brains from injury, and that’s how I got interested in the woodpecking thing. There is no such material in their heads. But then I got curious about what was going on instead.
This interview originally appeared in the proceedings for IASS 2018 at which the interviewee was a keynote speaker. These interviews make their first appearance online in this co-published series between this blog and the Digital Structures blog with the aim of inspiring a broader audience with the thoughts and insights of these outstanding individuals. Stay tuned on both blogs for more!



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