Greg Olson Returns to MIT as the First Thermo-Calc Professor of the Practice

Head shot of Professor Greg Olson
Professor Gregory B. Olson, who has been selected as the first Thermo-Calc Professor of the Practice at MIT.

Professor Gregory B. Olson has been named as the first Thermo-Calc Professor of the Practice at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering (DMSE), an appointment that further solidifies the already strong relationship held between industry and academia in the field of computational thermodynamics.This will be a homecoming for Professor Olson, who earned his B.S., M.S., and Sc.D. there in the 1970s and remained in the department as a researcher until 1988, when he left for a full professorship at Northwestern University.

This new professorship is an exciting opportunity for the application of CALPHAD tools and principles, as well as the systems design approach to materials, to be better understood by scientific and engineering communities who may not be fully aware of these concepts yet. Olson’s unique set of skills, which include being an inventor, entrepreneur, educator, engineer, musician and scientist, all contributed to him being named the first Thermo-Calc Professor of the Practice, the practice being that of materials design, where one uses computational tools to design and develop new alloys and materials processes.

Thermo-Calc recently spoke to Professor Olson about returning to his alma mater with a wealth of experience under his belt, and the opportunity this professorship affords the CALPHAD community in advancing the understanding of Integrated Computational Materials Engineering (ICME).

Olson speaks with enthusiasm that during his lifetime he has been able to witness the applications of the CALPHAD method to create alloys, which enables the quick time to market for a multitude of new, and big name, products. There are many people who have been integral to this, and Olson is quick to acknowledge those who inspired him and contributed to the growing awareness of the CALPHAD methodology as well as the materials design principles that will be the foundations used in Olson’s new courses.

There are three key influences in Olson’s early career at MIT that contribute to his lifelong pursuit of using CALPHAD and the concepts of material design—Professor Morris Cohen, Dr. Lawrence (Larry) Kaufman and… music.  

Although CALPHAD has not been a recent focus of the curriculum at MIT, it does have its origins there.  Olson spent many years studying and working with Morris Cohen, a man he greatly admired and who planted the seed that using science to design materials was possible:

I remember during a lot of our discussions I would suggest an idea for something I wanted to try and he would say “Well, if you could do that it would be true design”—Greg Olson

In the 1970s Cohen introduced Olson to Larry Kaufman. Kaufman, considered to have founded the field of computational thermodynamics and CALPHAD, shared his data and ideas with Olson, who in turn started to apply the CALPHAD tools and principles in his graduate research about martensitic nucleation. Olson attributes that as he applied these new concepts he was “designing for the purpose of science” but that it also gave him a sense that material design was possible.

At the same time Olson was doing his scientific research and being guided and inspired by Cohen and Kaufman, he was also doing a doctoral minor in music composition at the Berklee School of Music (now the Berklee College of Music). It took a few more years before the full benefit of Olson’s training in both scientific and artistic endeavours became clear to Olson himself. While attending a design workshop in the 1990s, a comment by a lead aerospace engineer about how “good system engineers tend to be musicians” sparked Olson’s awareness that he “learned design from music” and that the structure of music directly influenced his own ability to think in different ways than many of his contemporaries.

These personal and professional influences contributed greatly to Olson’s own vision that first launched the company he co-founded in 1997, QuesTek Innovations LLC. Olson then further established the “Materials by Design® methodology and inspired the concept of ICME as a discipline that also plays a key role in bridging the gaps between science and engineering, a gap that continues to be a challenge in the industry, although CALPHAD itself is one of the ways to connect the theory to practical applications.

I think people are coming around to seeing CALPHAD as that vehicle allowing us to go from computational science to science-based computational engineering—Greg Olson

The CALPHAD method itself is part of a much larger undertaking at MIT that sees a shift in focus towards computation as a whole. Olson’s new role will be a way to integrate design principles into the education and train the next generation of material science students to think beyond the traditional theoretical or experimental modes of learning. He is in essence introducing the “design tradition” into the curriculum and by doing so he is connecting scientists and engineers early on, laying the groundwork for more collaborations, something that is the driving force behind ICME. 

I think that MIT will be good for CALPHAD and CALPHAD will be good for MITGreg Olson

From the roots of MIT where Cohen and Kaufman inspired and guided Olson about his design ideas and the use of CALPHAD, to Olson’s own role in forming ICME as a discipline and pushing materials design into the forefront of industrial practices and alloy development, it seems everything has come full circle with Olson returning to inspire the next generation of students and researchers. Thermo-Calc is proud to support Olson’s continued passion for learning and applying scientific principles in new ways that have engineering purpose.

Did you know? The annual CALPHAD 2020 conference is being held in Sweden in May where the top researchers and innovators will gather to continue to discuss the many facets of research and discovery happening in the field.