MRL MVPs: Jessica Krogstad

12/13/2022 9:23:06 AM Amber Rose

Professor Jessica Krogstad, Department of Materials Science and Engineering
Professor Jessica Krogstad, Department of Materials Science and Engineering

The perfect combination of physics and chemistry and engineering

Jessica Krogstad’s research on how materials change in aggressive environments – such as oil refineries or nuclear reactors – was set in motion one day long ago, when she got lost on campus.

An associate professor in the Materials Science and Engineering (MatSE) department, Krogstad initially planned on studying aerospace engineering – but during a campus visit, Krogstad and her chatty parents experienced a twist of fate in the hallway of a university building. They happened upon a stranger who turned out to be a PhD student in MatSE. From this interaction, Krogstad learned about a six-week experience for high school students.

Krogstad knew immediately that the field was the right fit for her. She remembers thinking, “This is exactly what I want to do. Materials science is this perfect combination of physics and chemistry and engineering.”

What is this research thing?

She chose to study materials science and engineering at UIUC because it was one of the best undergrad programs in the nation and right next door to her native Iowa.

During her time at UIUC as an undergrad, Krogstad had the opportunity to do research with Prof. David Payne, a supportive mentor who allowed her to “play and learn and explore things in the lab.” Through internships and research opportunities, she learned that she didn’t want a bachelor’s level engineering position: she wanted to dig deeper. A summer program in England, encouraged by Prof. John Abelson, solidified her desire to go to graduate school and do research. When finding the right graduate program for her (Materials Science at University of California Santa Barbara working with Prof. Carlos G. Levi), Krogstad says that “picking the right school was more about the mentoring relationship I was going to have…on the [research] topic, I was pretty flexible.”

Really important little things

Her fortune continued at Johns Hopkins University, where she studied under Prof. Kevin J. Hemker. She was given “the latitude to learn and do new things,” Krogstad says, acquiring not only technical and science skills, but also soft skills and professional connections. The support of her postdoc advisor allowed Krogstad to start a family and have her first child. He also encouraged her to apply to her current faculty position at UIUC even though she didn’t think she was ready: “I didn’t think it was time.”

Now as faculty, Krogstad still finds value in mentorship. She says “the mentorship that I’ve received within the [MatSE] department has also made a huge difference, introducing me to projects that I didn’t think I was ready for. I also appreciate even the quick check in…these are all really important little things.”

Really aggressive environments and application agnosticism

The Krogstad research group focuses on how aggressive environments (such as oil refineries or nuclear reactors) change materials. “We put materials into these [aggressive] environments and it’s foolish to expect them to stay the same, right?” Krogstad ponders.

One of the Krogstad Research Group lab spaces located in the Materials Research Lab (MRL)
One of the Krogstad Research Group lab spaces located in the Materials Research Lab (MRL)

When materials are in such environments, it’s important to understand when those materials are going to break. For example, materials in jet engines are operating at temperatures higher than the actual melting temperature of most materials in that engine. And yet, the plane still flies, and the engine stays together. Krogstad explains this is “because we can anticipate how the materials change. We can put cooling in or put a coating on.” The group focuses on using microscopy tools to study the defects and arrangements of atoms at a high resolution to see how they respond and change. The defects in materials can be leveraged to their advantage to make the materials stronger.

Another project that Krogstad is very excited about is exploring how to integrate green hydrogen into the economy more effectively. A highly collaborative effort between nuclear engineering, mechanical engineering, and material science, the group aims to understand how hydrogen can be stored appropriately. Since hydrogen molecules are very small, they can sneak out of the traditional metal containers used to store it. Krogstad explains that “we’re trying to design new alloys by taking into account known and postulated hydrogen interactions [with stainless steels].”

Krogstad performing an outreach demo experiment
Krogstad performing an outreach demo experiment

The more the merrier

Women in engineering face more challenges in the field compared to their male counterparts, but Krogstad says that she can see progress. She’s optimistic about the direction the field is heading when it comes to the inclusion of women.  However, she is more concerned about other historically marginalized communities and whether they’re making the same progress. “Because the more the merrier, right? The more ideas, the better off we’ll be,” she said.

Krogstad is highly involved in outreach, leading a summer camp called Gender Equity and Materials Science (or alternatively, Get Excited about Materials Science) which allows students from different backgrounds (not just based on their gender identity) to explore the field of materials science. Krogstad says “the goal for me is advertising MatSE, that MatSE is in fact a place where all these students can come and embrace their passions and really tailor it to what they’re most interested in.” Her current mission in outreach is guiding students who already think they have a space in STEM and making sure they’re aware of all their options and how exciting this field can be.

They know I'm a scientist and they know I'm proud of it

Balancing a blooming research career and family can be difficult but Krogstad actually likes to blur the boundaries between scientist and mom. “I teach my kids. When they ask, ‘what is a rainbow?’ I nerd out on them. They know I’m a scientist and they know I’m proud of it,” she says. During her outreach activities and in everyday life, Krogstad makes it clear that she has a family to be an example to other people: they don’t have to choose between a research career and having a family.

She also strives to be a model for her graduate students and the undergraduates that she teaches. “There’s always room for more, there’s always room for better. If you let yourself get caught up in that, it can be really exhausting and it can rapidly lead to burnout. And that’s not something I want to model,” Krogstad explains.

A leader in the field

Krogstad’s tenure case was recently approved, allowing her more flexibility in the research her group does now. While she has a lot of choices available to her, she knows that she “wants to continue to succeed and be a leader in the field.”

To read more about Krogstad’s research, check out her group webpage: