Western is leading a national plan, with international impact, to train a new generation of corrosion scientists through redesigned – and more equitable – curriculum, education, training and research.
Chemistry professor and Wolfe-Western Fellow At-Large Yolanda Hedberg will administer a newly announced $1.65-million grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) that will include the collaboration of eight universities and four industry partners in Canada, plus 20 universities abroad and three international corrosion associations in 19 countries.
The aim, said Hedberg, is to spark the imagination of tens of thousands of kids and young adults across the country to ponder and solve some global problems in corrosion.
And that means more than just thinking about rusty vehicles and crumbling bridges. Corrosion is also about everyday life: why you might get a rash while wearing cheap jewelry, the pitfalls of squeezing lemon into your foil-wrapped salmon, and why your smart dentist doesn’t place an amalgam filling next to a gold tooth.
“Corrosion science is not just about cars and it’s not just for techno-nerds,” Hedberg said. “It’s about chemistry, biology, ethics and environmentalism and so much more. It’s about preserving our resources and the Earth.”
The point is that corrosion scientists are helping society in all sorts of ways and that message is not getting out. People aren’t thinking about corrosion as in, ‘I can study this and change the world.’”
Filling the equity gap
Western is a global leader in corrosion research, with expertise that includes preventing medical nanoparticles from degradation, safeguarding used nuclear fuel in copper canisters, and protecting bridges from oxidizing.
One gap has been attracting and retaining women, immigrants and equity-deserving persons into the field, said Hedberg, who noted she is often one of only a few corrosion researchers at some conferences. “Diversity brings more perspectives and more problem-solvers. Science is not about one genius’s perspective. It’s a collective effort and the training needs to reflect that fact.”
Western’s gender studies program and Faculty of Education are also involved in developing the program – making it interdisciplinary as well as international.
The program is one of three national awards under an NSERC Collaborative Research and Training Experience (CREATE) envelope and runs for six years. The program supports highly qualified students and postdoctoral fellows from Canada and abroad, through the development of innovative research training programs that address significant scientific challenges with respect to corrosion research and by helping transition trainees to the workforce.
Hedberg believes building enthusiasm must start early, before kids even reach high school. Corrosion – the degradation of materials by chemical, electrochemical or biochemical reactions – is everywhere, she said, even if people don’t realize it.
“You have to know the basis about how corrosion takes place in different metals,” she said. For example:
- If you place salt in a pot of cold water while cooking, the crystals will sink to the bottom and begin to corrode the metal pot. Add salt to warm water instead and it will dissolve and preserve the life of the pan.
- Foodies also need to know that adding lemon juice to fish wrapped in aluminum foil will make some of the aluminum leach into the food.
- Wearing a nickel-plated ring can do more than make your finger turn green. That’s the start of corrosion and it can cause a biochemical reaction that sometimes leaves a rash and can lead to a long-lasting metal allergy.
- Dentists are careful not to place a gold tooth covering and amalgam filling next to each other because the dissimilarity of these metals can cause more mercury to leach out into the patient’s mouth.
“We’re looking to enrich the education and teach students that this kind of science is accessible and has practical implications,” Hedberg said.
The program is also intended to cultivate expertise among postsecondary students already in the field.
For example, students will have access to research and training expertise from 43 principal investigators in 19 countries on six continents.
They will be able to discover, for example the ethical aspects of resource extraction on Indigenous lands in Australia; or learn the equity and health-care implications of corroded water pipelines in Belarus.
“The training program will allow them to connect the dots among disciplines so that, ultimately, they can help make people healthier and improve sustainability of our resources, economy and environment.”