Mackenzie Perry earned her Ph.D. from Virginia Tech in materials science and engineering (MSE) in 2021, after having completed a B.S. in MSE with a minor in the College of Engineering’s green engineering program in 2017. Research on solid-state metal additive manufacturing that she completed while at Virginia Tech recently won her the prestigious Acta Student Award. It recognizes achievements in materials science and engineering research by graduate students from around the world. Perry was one of five U.S. award recipients this year.

While at Virginia Tech, Perry was part of the research group led by Hang Yu, whose lab focuses on 3D printing metals for industry and national defense. The technology, called additive friction stir deposition (AFSD), is relatively new, dating to the early 2010s, and students in Yu’s lab are helping develop this scalable, low-temperature process that could benefit a range of industries and agencies. In 2018, Perry was selected for the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program — a five-year award providing tuition and other financial support. It is awarded to 2,000 students in the U.S.

Today, Perry works as a materials engineer in the Welding, Processing, and Nondestructive Evaluation Branch at the Naval Surface Warfare Center-Carderock Division. Her work at Virginia Tech helped her land her first job. She met a senior engineer from Carderock while presenting her doctoral research at a conference in Salt Lake City, Utah. That meeting led to her current position at the Naval lab.

Why did you choose Carderock?

I had the opportunity to complete some of my graduate research at the Development Command Army Research Laboratory in Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland. This was my first exposure to the unique Department of Defense resources and experiences. Carderock offered me an opportunity to continue answering some of the remaining questions I had from my research, while contributing to the Navy's mission. I've found that academia is focused on very fundamental research, which does not always involve a final application. Industry, on the other hand, can be overly focused on the final application. Both are very important, but, for me, government labs are the perfect balance between academia and industry. The best part about my job is the freedom to pursue research topics that are tied to a worthwhile final application.

How did Virginia Tech prepare you for your career?

The education and experiences I had at Virginia Tech, and specifically within the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, definitely prepared me for my career. Overall, I believe college is the best way to learn how to learn and make sure that you have the technical knowledge, communication skills, and empathy you need to be successful in the "real world.” 

The MSE department at Virginia Tech not only teaches all of the necessary materials courses, but also offers hands-on labs to interact with materials processing and characterization techniques, emphasizes professional development through the integrated Engineering Communications Program, and sponsors students to participate in international conferences. Being a graduate student in Dr. Yu's research group directly prepared me for my current role. I learned how to plan and manage a research project, review literature and synthesize it into useful information, persevere when everything goes wrong in the lab, and communicate the impact my research has through published journal articles.

What's the coolest thing you've been able to do with your degree so far?

My Ph.D. in materials science and engineering has allowed me to immediately have a high level of trust and responsibility as a young professional.

What advice do you have for Hokie undergraduates when thinking about their future careers?

My advice is to look at descriptions for the types of jobs that you want in 10 or 20 years and see what kinds of degrees or experience you need. In your time at Virginia Tech, start building those skills and experiences with research, classes outside of your major, internships, etc. Pay attention to portions of the job description you are drawn to and which ones you are not as excited about. It is important to know that about yourself and be able to communicate that to others because you can complement team members with opposite preferences. One of the most important skills in almost any job you're going to have is the ability to listen to a group of people, synthesize the information, and communicate actions and decisions based on that — start now to hone that skill!