The Wallberg building on the north side of College Street extends all the way from King’s College Circle to St. George. As the sizeable stronghold of U of T’s vast engineering empire, it exudes a sense of scientific prowess. Upon entering this unknown territory, I am met with questioning looks. “I’m looking for students in metallurgy,” I say. But the students seem just as confused as I am.

I can’t say I blame them—after all, what exactly is metallurgy? Visions of swords and tempered steel come to mind, accompanied by the sound of hammers pounding iron. It sounds like some mysterious medieval craft, a U of T secret involving fully-armoured scientists mixing metals in the basement.

In my unremitting quest to solve this mystery, I am eventually directed to a series of administrative offices in the easternmost division of Wallberg. This is the home of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering—MSE for short. I have found my answer.

Part of the Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering, MSE is the discipline that studies relationships between the structure, properties, performance, and processing of materials. Until 1998, it was known as the Department of Metallurgy and Materials Science, until a decision to update the department’s image was made to attract more students to the field. According to departmental chair Professor Doug Perovic, the department is an important one. “There are a lot of personal and emotional attachments to metallurgy. It’s a long-standing important part of what we do, and it’s a big part of what Canada does,” he says. “Although we do a lot with metals, we wanted to get the message out that this department does a whole lot more.”

MSE encompasses the more traditional study of metallurgy, as well as newer fields like nanotechnology, ceramics, polymers, and biomaterials. From the atomic level, to large scale production and extraction of materials, undergraduate and graduate students are exposed to a wide range of options.

“This department has a lot of interdisciplinary connections, and a lot of cross-appointments between faculty,” says Varuna Prakash, a MSE graduate now pursuing a Masters in clinical biomechanical engineering. “It’s very diverse.”

As the smallest undergraduate engineering department at U of T, MSE students benefit from small class sizes and the chance to really get to know their professors. They also get hands-on experience in research labs and within the industry. Although it may be small, the MSE department at the University of Toronto happens to be the largest in North America, and is ranked first in Canada.

“It’s one of the smaller disciplines of engineering, but it’s crucial,” says Perovic. “Just look around—everything is made of materials, and whether it’s aerospace or automotive, cell phones, or hip implants and heart valves: we do all that. That’s on the product end. But on the primary end, this stuff has to be taken out of the ground. That’s the metallurgy process side: refining, smelting, [producing it] cost-effectively with less environmental damage. That’s what we continue to advance in our research.”

The Department of Materials Science and Engineering may be demanding, but it is highly applicable to a broad range of disciplines. “Engineers turn up everywhere,” says MSE undergraduate and graduate counsellor Maria Fryman. In fact, graduates of the University of Toronto’s MSE program have gone on to study medicine and business, with some working in the metallurgy industry, or pursuing PhD degrees in materials.

So why study materials science? According to one professor, MSE allows us to bridge different areas of technology, and fuse the traditional disciplines of science to gain a deeper understanding of nature. New streams of research like nanotech and biomaterials are based on the traditional basis of metallurgy. There are many socio-economic issues attached to the extraction and processing of metals. While one third of Canada’s economy is related to mining and materials, these numbers aren’t seen in the workforce.

Material scientists and engineers are crucial in the production of all the things we use on a day-to-day basis—from clothes and electronics to buildings and bridges. So as it turns out, there’s more to metallurgy than mixing metals in a basement after all.

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