Experiments often yield unexpected results. In research and in life, MIT Associate Professor Cem Tasan has learned to embrace that uncertainty.
“Very often we start with an idea or a hypothesis, and to test that idea we design experiments, and when we run the experiments, we see something totally different,” says Tasan, the newly tenured Thomas B. King Associate Professor of Metallurgy.
Tasan has used those surprises to explore the boundaries of metallurgy and solid mechanics, gleaning new insights into how metals break and deform, and designing new kinds of damage-resistant alloys.
“As they say, science is like taking a walk in the hills,” Tasan says. “You see the mountain far away, and that’s where you want to go, but as you head toward it, you see a beautiful flower on a different pathway, so you check that out. That happens so often to [my group]. It’s exciting.”
Tasan has extended that approach to his career, leading him to take a faculty position at MIT despite not seeing the campus until his first job interview.
“Being at MIT, or even in the USA, was never on my radar,” Tasan says. “It just wasn’t part of a plan.”
That mindset has also helped him mentor students, whom he’s learned never to judge based on initial impressions.
“I had a really bright student reach out and say ‘Everything is great, we have funding, we are productive, but I’m not sure I like what I’m doing,’” Tasan recalls. “We talked and identified another direction closer to the student’s interests, but that would mean we might not have secure funding or the necessary know-how, so there were all these disadvantages.
“But we went down that road and it was amazing, because now this student was doing the research they really liked, and that successful student became an amazing student. Mentoring is complicated because on the outside things can seem fine, but the key idea is to pay attention to small details and keep communicating with these young people, who are on their own journeys. There’s no easy way other than communicating and observing.”
A winding path
Tasan grew up in Turkey and studied metallurgical and materials engineering at the country’s top college in the field, the Middle East Technical University.
“What intrigued me about metallurgy is that it’s an engineering field, but it’s also strongly related with basic sciences,” Tasan says. “That connection exists in other engineering fields as well, but not as strongly. In materials science, it’s fair to say one leg is almost always in the fundamental side of things.”
Tasan also travelled a lot as a young adult, backpacking with friends across Europe on a shoestring budget.
“Early on, my personal goal in life was to move to Spain and eat tapas all the time and have fun,” Tasan jokes.
During one such trip, Tasan packed a suit in the bottom of his backpack just in case he landed an interview with a graduate program. The preparation paid off in the Netherlands, where he met with members of the mechanical engineering department at the Eindhoven University of Technology. Tasan would go on to earn his PhD at the school, studying how damage and cracking takes place in metals.
After earning his PhD in 2010, Tasan joined the Max Planck Institute for Iron Research in Germany, where he eventually led a research group that continued studying metal behavior and worked on creating new metal alloys that were more damage-resistant and had other unique properties.
By 2015, Tasan was settled into a comfortable life in Germany. Then a position at MIT opened up.
“At MIT, I could suddenly do much more on these topics that excited me, so my research could create a bigger impact,” Tasan says.
After traveling to MIT for interviews, the talent and atmosphere also convinced Tasan to make the move.
“I think it’s important to be surrounded by people who are very ambitious and who want to have a big impact,” Tasan says. “You walk in the Infinite Corridor, or any other MIT corridor, and every board you pass has stuff about people changing the world in a different way. Being in that environment inspires you.”
Once in Cambridge, Tasan immediately loved what he describes as its “small-town feel,” comparing it to some European towns. He’s also embraced the Boston culture, becoming a fan of baseball and the Red Sox.
Since arriving at MIT, Tasan’s group has studied metal samples’ response to stress and other stimuli in real time using a technique called in situ electron microscopy.
“We do in situ tests, which means you take an electron microscope and basically build machines inside that allows you to take any metal and put it under different conditions, as you watch its structure evolve,” Tasan explains. “Because these experiments are so unique and complex, when a student designs an experiment and eventually brings the results back to me, it’s often the first-ever observation of some phenomena.”
In 2020 Tasan’s group developed new in-situ methods for studying the effects of hydrogen in metals, leading to insights that could help with the transition to clean hydrogen energy. The approach has been adopted by other labs for further study.
Tasan’s group also created a more damage resistant, high temperature alloy that’s part of a class of metals known as high entropy alloys. That work was published in the journal Nature Materials.
“Doing physical metallurgy research allows us to connect basic understanding of metals and industrial applications,” Tasan says. “I’m dealing with atoms and how they interact — and at the same time I’m talking weekly with companies that produce thousands of tons of metals, and we’re using the same language. I can talk to a company producing steels for auto bodies or titanium for airplane engines, and the stuff I study in my lab is still valuable to them.”
In one much-publicized Science paper, Tasan’s group uncovered the reasons why even the sharpest knives and razors dull after everyday processes like shaving.
“We like to demonstrate the importance of materials science and metallurgy to a broader audience,” Tasan says. “The paper on why hair deforms steel was great because it was picked up in all kinds of news channels around the world, and it showed that even in very conventional areas, like making knives or blades, there’s a lot of new insights and paths to find.”
Solving the ultimate puzzles
Tasan brings the same careful diligence he uses to study metals to support students. He says he’s found that like metals, people also typically have more complex stories that you can only see if you look closely enough.
“It’s interesting because everybody is so different,” Tasan says. “Once you start working with people and trying to help them, you see so many different dimensions that were not visible before. You have the opportunity to sit down with them and look them in the eye and try to understand what they really want. And it’s interesting because often they also don’t know what they want, and sometimes they even don’t know that they don’t know that!”
Fortunately, Tasan enjoys those challenges most of all.
“In a way, the researchers are puzzles waiting to be solved, like the research itself,” Tasan says. “And if you put in enough effort and you really care, you get this enormously gratifying feeling of helping someone succeed in life. It’s really a unique part of the job, and it’s what I love more than anything.”