Bridging scales to make a difference

Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering, Dr. James Hogan sees himself as a conduit - for fundamental research to reach industry, for the development of large-scale collaborations and for mentoring undergraduate students to success in university.

Hogan’s research concerns mechanics and materials and the design and development of materials suitable for defense purposes, such as body armor and armored vehicles. “Traditionally in the field of military materials, to make something stronger, we just made it thicker,” he says. “But then body armor becomes too heavy to carry and vehicles become too costly to fuel. So now we look to make lightweight tactical armor and vehicles.”

In his lab Hogan and his team study the performance of these lightweight materials at a nano- and micro-scale in order to inform the design of military equipment for maximum performance. “We want to make lighter systems that perform better. So we select new materials or alter the microstructure of existing materials refine and improve their performance,” he explains.

While the demand for new defense materials often comes from the highest levels of government, the weight of tradition can sometimes make these demands impossible to meet. New materials for military application are often faced with an industry unwilling or unable to change. Researchers might have a new, highly effective material for military application, but if no one can manufacture it, it is useless.

“When you introduce a new material to the manufacturing process it introduces unknowns. So it’s a challenge and industry can be resistant. I judge the success of my work on whether or not it’s being applied in the field. I get a lot of gratification when industry takes my ideas and alters a manufacturing process or when my ideas inform a policy decision.”

Although many of his results are not open for public dissemination, Hogan judges his success by his extensive network of collaborators and his student’s success. “Our collaborations with the American Army and with Defense Research and Development Canada speak to the quality of our work,” says Hogan. “If they didn’t have confidence in our work, they wouldn’t continue to work with us.”

Hogan employs multiple undergraduates, five Master’s students and three PhD students and one postdoc fellow at the moment and meets with each of them individually weekly. “I like to keep track of them and make sure they’re progressing and that they feel okay,” he says. He sends his students to conferences as well, ensuring that they’re prepared for the experience and trained for their presentations. “The attention paid to me by my mentors made a big difference to my education. I want to do the same,” he says.

For James Hogan, a focus on the small things lets him make big differences.