In Tenure Talk, Tasan shares big challenges, little pleasures

Categories: Events, Faculty

Cem Tasan, the Thomas B. King Associate Professor of Metallurgy in DMSE, gave the first installment of the department’s new lecture series, Tenure Talks, on Oct. 5.
In a video-recorded talk to about 60 students and faculty members in 6-120, Tasan touched on the ages-old problem of metals failing, or losing their “operational functionality,” and discussed how to develop damage-resistant metal alloys. He also gave advice to budding scholars on how to navigate the highs and lows of the tenure process.
Tasan, a film buff, used movie analogies to punctuate points—starting with Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 dark comedic masterpiece Dr. Strangelove, which satirizes Cold War fears of a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. 
“I think tenure process is a bit like this,” said Tasan, who was granted tenure in July.  As in the film, there’s the possibility of a difficult, dramatic end, but there’s also a lot of fun in it.
DMSE’s Tenure Talks are overview presentations by newly tenured about the challenges of seeking tenure and lessons learned along the way.

Metallurgical challenges

Tasan began with his academic area of expertise: metallurgy, giving a brief history lesson. People have been forging tools, weapons, and ornaments from metals for thousands of years. Requirements from metals in early stages of human civilization were fairly simple—hardness, durability, and resistance to wear and tear. 
But these requirements have progressively increased. Today, there’s an ever-expanding need for superior metals, Tasan said; and we expect much more from them—that they endure extremely high or low temperatures, for example, withstand corrosion, or support heavy loads.
What’s stopping the introduction of new and better design approaches is current characterization techniques, Tasan said. “Most of our understanding of the physics of metals is coming from looking at simple structures and simple models.”
Metal microstructures, the microscopic scaffolding that makes up metals, are enormously complex. To try to figure them out, Tasan and his research group developed a set of in-situ microscopic techniques—examining what happens to a material in response to a stimulus in real time. 
Using high-tech equipment such as scanning electron microscope, the researchers can look at what happens to metals, what kind of damage they sustain, under various conditions. Understanding this, Tasan explains, can help them determine how to design new, superior materials. 

Little adjustments, little pleasures

The second part of Tasan’s talk departed from the technical, focusing on the more personal dimension of the tenure-track life. Tasan started with what he called “little adjustments and little pleasures.”
Little adjustments are small strategies he adopted to increase the chances of success in academic research and life. One was listening. He gave an example from early in his career, when he had an idea that was going to create sustainability benefits in the metal production process.
“I quickly realized that actually the field was not embracing this idea as enthusiastically as I was,” Tasan said. But once he “listened to the field carefully,” he reorganized his approach and as a result made a much bigger impact.
Little pleasures are the moments in Tasan’s academic journey that continue to bring smiles to his face. They include a memory of the day he first interviewed for his job at MIT, in 2015. It was during a breakfast meeting with Professor Chris Schuh, then head of DMSE—in front of Schuh was a plate “that’s just basically empty with one avocado slice or something.” Tasan’s had a heaping pile of pancakes dripping with Nutella chocolate sauce.
“I thought, ‘OK, this job is gone already,’” Tasan said. “Anyway, that interview went fine.”
Other moments he likes to remember were the call Schuh made with the news Tasan had in fact gotten the job; arriving at MIT and putting together a talented group of grad student researchers; and on what was supposed to be a fun skiing trip for them, returning with several people on crutches. 
There was no more skiing after that. “We just had milk-drinking celebrations” or did other things that couldn’t cause harm, Tasan said with a smile. “Moments like this should be really remembered. Otherwise, one starts remembering only the bad or the ugly things.” 
Two more Tenure Talks are scheduled for the fall. They’re held in 6-120, with a reception to follow in the Chipman. Here are the schedules:
Wednesday, Oct. 26, 4:30 pm to 5:30 pm: Robert Macfarlane
Wednesday, Nov. 2, 4:30 pm to 5:30 pm: James LeBeau