Blazing the Trail

Interview with Carolyn Hansson
2019 Howe Memorial Lecture Award Recipient

By Amanda L. Blyth

The AIST Howe Memorial Lecture Award was established in 1923 to honor the late professor Henry Marion Howe, who helped turn steelmaking from an art into a science.
This year’s recipient, Carolyn Hansson, is a professor in both the Mechanical and Mechatronics Engineering and the Civil and Environmental Engineering Departments at the University of Waterloo. She received her B.Sc., A.R.S.M, D.I.C. and Ph.D. in metallurgical engineering from Imperial College, London University. She has lived and worked in the U.K., the U.S., Denmark and Canada and has been employed in private sector research (Martin Marietta Research Laboratories and AT&T Bell Laboratories, now Lucent Technologies), a not-for-profit consulting company (the Danish Corrosion Centre) and in academia (Columbia University, the State University of New York at Stony Brook, Queen’s University and the University of Waterloo).
Over the last 30 years, Hansson’s major research focus has been the durability of infrastructure materials, particularly the chloride-induced corrosion of reinforcing bar and those properties of the concrete and the reinforcing alloys that affect this process.
She was awarded the Howe Memorial Lecture “for exceptional research and technology transfer related to the integrity of infrastructure for society. Her holistic approach to investigating the corrosion of steel reinforcement in concrete has broadened the understanding of this critical aspect of construction. Through her teachings she has motivated others, particularly young women engineers, to develop and realize their own potential.”

Were you always interested in engineering and materials?


Absolutely not. I had no idea about any of these things. We had two sets of national exams in the U.K. One was at 16, on general subjects. At 16, my highest mark was in art, and my next-highest was English. I think my third-highest mark was in French. In my last two years — I don’t know how — I ended up doing chemistry, physics, math and applied mechanics. We had a career convention, where people were invited to come and talk about what they’re doing in their jobs, and the people in the atomic energy organization asked me, “Why don’t you try metallurgy?” I said, “What’s that?” and they gave me some information. I thought it sounded interesting, so I applied for metallurgy at two or three universities, and went for an interview at Imperial College. They said, “We don’t very often get very many women applying.” I thought that meant maybe 10% of the class would be women, but when I got there, I was it. They had never had any women before, and I was the only woman in the school of mines. So that was kind of strange, because I’d been at an all-girls school all my life.
My students are still suffering from my expertise in English, because I correct their grammar all the time.

Did you always want to teach


No. I spent about a third of my professional life in industry, and I was very happy there, but I was married to a man who couldn’t stay in one place. I’ve lived in England, then the States, then Denmark, then here [in Canada].
I did my thesis work at Imperial College in London and I was working on superconductivity, which is not something that comes up that much in iron and steel. I was measuring the crystal structure of alloys at –260°C. My husband was hired by Westinghouse in Maryland. I was interviewed by Martin Marietta’s Institute for Advanced Studies, as it was then, and I was hired. I was asked to work on liquid metal embrittlement, which I said I knew nothing about. They said, “You’d better learn, because the deadline for submission of your proposal is in three weeks.” (We actually got the contract.)
I worked there for four years, and then Westinghouse closed the plant that my husband was working in, so we moved to Long Island, N.Y. There was nowhere industrial nearby, so I ended up interviewing at Columbia University and teaching there, driving to New York City every day. Subsequently I was offered a job at State University of New York at Stony Brook, which was much closer to where I lived. That’s how I got into teaching — by default.

How did concrete come into the picture


When I followed my husband to Denmark, I got a job at the Danish Corrosion Centre. I had then been at university, dealing with projects that were two to three years long, and the Danish Corrosion Centre was basically a testing and consulting institute. A long-term project for them would be two weeks. A Danish cement company had developed a new cement and wanted to make sure that reinforcing steel was stable inside the concrete made with this new cement. They asked the Danish Corrosion Centre to do a two-year project and I was the only person in the company who had run a two-year project. I took responsibility for the project and had to learn about the coating that was on the steel.
At that time, the only people looking at concrete were civil engineers. They weren’t materials people. I’m a materials person. Prior to this, even when I was at Columbia and Stony Brook, the chair of the department said to me, “What do you want to work on?” I said, “Erosion,” and he said, “What’s that?” I responded, “I don’t know, but give me two years and I’ll tell you.” The reason for that was when I worked at Martin Marietta, I kept coming across the statement “cobalt is inherently erosion-resistant” and nobody could tell me what that meant, so I set out to work on erosion. It turned out that all the people working on erosion were mechanical engineers. They weren’t look at it from a materials point of view.
I remember my first talk at ASTM. I was showing micrographs, and was asked, “Why do you need a microscope, let alone an electron microscope, when you can see the damage with your naked eye?” Well, of course, you can see the damage with your naked eye, once it’s beyond repair. So that’s how I ended up making a name for myself, because I suddenly became a guru in erosion because I was looking at it in a different manner from everybody else. And the same thing happened in concrete. I was dealing with civil engineers who didn’t have the background in chemistry, and certainly not the electro-chemistry of corrosion. So it’s easy to become top of the pile of a subject.
I know more about concrete than anybody in our civil engineering department.

How meaningful is it that you are only the second female Howe Memorial Lecturer


It’s a tremendous honor. I have no idea why they selected me. This is not the first time I’ve been the first or second woman to win an award. I was actually the first woman ever to get a degree in metallurgical engineering in the U.K. That was rather a long time ago. My first four jobs, I was the only woman around, in a technical capacity. I worked at Martin Marietta first and I was the only woman there who wasn’t in an administrative role. I worked for Columbia University and then at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, and in both cases I was the only woman on the faculty of engineering. So I’m used to dealing with men — they’re just not used to dealing with women.