Alumnus Profile: John Nychka, Ph.D. 2004

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

John is an Associate Professor and Vargo Teaching Chair in the Department of Chemical and Materials Engineering at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada. He is also an Adjunct Associate Professor in the School of Dentistry.  John’s primary research goal in structural materials is to improve the performance of materials as they relate to other fields. As a result, John works with colleagues in various departments and bridges materials engineering with different academic endeavors. Currently, one of the students he co-advises is from Human Ecology and studies textiles. John guides the research determining how yarn chemistry and microstructure affect the movement of moisture through a textile. He also co-supervises a student studying cryobiology - using thermodynamic models to improve the process by which living cells and tissue are frozen for transplantation. 

While on sabbatical, John spent time in Cambridge, England working with Mike Ashby, a world-renowned material scientist and co-founder of Granta, a materials engineering software company. The Granta educational team welcomed John, allowing him to do what he loves: talk and dream of new and better ways to educate others about materials science and engineering. Prior to his sabbatical, John received a silver medal from ASM International for his contributions to materials science and his excellence in research and teaching. Perhaps John’s most significant career achievement was delivering a TEDx talk in Edmonton, Canada in June 2014. In his talk, Designing for & against Uncertainty, John touches upon his internal struggle to pursue fine arts or engineering upon entering university. Ultimately, he gave himself permission to do both.

While pursuing his Ph.D. in Materials at UCSB, John continued developing an interest in photography. John rode his bike to and from the lab, stopping to take pictures along the way, and even constructed a dark room in his apartment. John’s perspective on photography is quite similar to his perspective on research: the process is more important than the outcome. And just like a photographer disposes of many frames, many experiments often need to be conducted and discarded to determine an ultimate scientific explanation or solution. 

John advises future graduate students to adjust their perspective on learning. Graduate school requires a deeper level of thinking and exploration of problems to arrive at solutions that ultimately create knowledge. He encourages students to embrace mistakes and failures, to see them as events from which great knowledge and progress can be extracted. John also advocates honing communication skills by taking courses and reading books on the subject. Communication skills are critical whether delivering a classroom lecture or technical presentation or simply moderating a question and answer session. 

John received his Ph.D. in Materials in 2004 from UCSB and was advised by Prof. David Clarke. He attended the University of Alberta for his B.Sc. in Metallurgical Engineering and McMaster University in Ontario, Canada for his M.Eng. in Materials Science and Engineering. John conducted postdoctoral research and undergraduate instruction at UCSB before accepting a faculty position at the University of Kentucky. He has been a professor at the University of Alberta for eight years. 

Below are samples of John's photography. All images, including his portrait, are owned by John and used with his permission.

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