Through teaching, leadership, research, Gary Messing leaves mark

David Kubarek
April 27, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — In retirement, Penn State Professor Gary Messing hasn’t moved far at all from a material that’s defined his 40-year career. He’s just seeing it from a different point of view.

Gary Messing

Gary Messing said he excited students about materials science by using what originally drew him to the engineering field: the constant opportunity to discover something completely new. He retired from Penn State after a 40-year career. 

IMAGE: Penn State

Messing, distinguished professor of ceramic science and engineering, spent his career teaching and researching technical ceramics and improving the University’s materials science facilities throughout that tenure. He’s worked with elite companies such as 3M and Saint Gobain, conducting research on products as ubiquitous as sandpaper and cutting materials. He’s also worked on federally funded high-end products with medical and military applications.

Now, he’s returning to a passion that began while earning his doctorate from the University of Florida — ceramic arts.

When people think of ceramic art, Messing said, people tend to gravitate toward images of pottery shaped on a wheel. That’s one facet. But there’s a wide array of art created from the material.

“Ceramic art takes on the form of mosaics, tiles and other hand-built works,” Messing said. “But the art isn’t created with the technical materials that we’ve been using in my research group. It’s with traditional materials such as clay. It’s a complete change from what I do now. Although, to be honest, the scientific principles behind it are the same.”

Messing’s research focuses on processing and fabricating ceramics with unique microstructures and significantly improved performance. It’s very process-oriented and involves synthesizing and combining materials to create new ones.

With their hands, artists are doing the same thing, he said. They’re using a process to shape the desired outcome for the material.

“Artists are very strong in the creative side and often don’t have as much of an appreciation for the science behind the art,” Messing said. “So I want to take some of the science behind what I do now and bring that over to the art side and expand my own artist horizons.”

Joining Penn State

Messing knew that he loved universities in remote settings from his undergraduate days at Alfred University and always had an affinity for Penn State. So he was delighted when his graduate school classmate from the University of Florida — longtime Penn State glass expert Carlo Pantano — told him a tenure-line position in ceramics processing had just opened up.

Joining Penn State in 1980, he got busy writing proposals to fund his research and teaching classes. Messing loved Penn State’s hands-off approach to research — that if you could fund it, you could do it — and set out securing funding for projects that most interested him.

Soon, collaborative efforts across campus made him realize that, for him, research wasn’t enough. To do all he set out to do, he would need to add leadership roles to his pursuits.

Building on research

Messing’s first endeavor as co-founding director of the National Science Foundation’s Industry/University Cooperative Research Center on Particulate Materials in 1991 was born out of his ties with researchers in materials, agricultural sciences, mineral processing and other disciplines.

That led him to direct the Materials Research Laboratory in 1997, where he worked to bridge research across the University until 2001, when the lab joined the Materials Research Institute, then led by Pantano.

That allowed him to build research ties with industry leaders, which in turn led to more research and employment opportunities for his students. He estimates about 40% of his students went on to earn jobs at some of these research-focused companies.

“That’s something that’s always been fulfilling, being able to provide high quality experts in the field, whether it’s in academia, industry or national labs,” Messing said.

His research on seeded sol gel research impacted hi-tech alumina ceramics, which have wide ranging applications including the billion-dollar abrasives industry. Work on transparent ceramics for lasers and textured piezoelectic ceramics is having long term impacts in defense applications.

International engagement

Messing said one of the most satisfying aspects of research is that it has led to many opportunities for international collaboration.

“I’ve traveled to 40 countries and advised Ph.D. graduates who are mostly in academic positions around the world,” Messing said.

When he was department head, he organized the International Internship in Materials, which enabled 20 Penn State materials undergraduates to do research abroad and to host an equal number of international students in the department; many of whom obtained Penn State doctoral degrees.

His international collaborations resulted in numerous awards and leadership positions such as President of the American Ceramic Society, the International Ceramic Federation and the World Academy of Ceramics.

Messing led the Department of Materials Science and Engineering (MatSE) from 2001 to 2015. During that time, his biggest mark was overseeing the transformation of the Edward Steidle Building to a state-of-the-art education and research building with 22,350 square feet of shared research space for materials research.

In that project, one of the decisions Messing said industry leaders are most proud of is the shared research space because it encourages interdisciplinary research while mimicking research facilities graduates will encounter at industry and federal research labs.

It’s also helping to recruit top students.

“It’s not necessarily the final deciding factor but it’s an important factor, particularly for undergraduates” Messing said. “The new building draws in the parents and students, who are like ‘wow, I did not know such an exciting discipline existed at Penn State’.”

Another area Messing had impact was stressing lab safety training for students. He relied on a team of experts through MatSE’s External Advisory Board to ensure students had as great a knowledge and experience with laboratory safety as they did the materials they studied.

Messing relied on what excited him about materials science — the constant opportunity to discover something completely new — to get his students excited about the science.

Through teaching, research and leadership, Messing said, it’s a career that for him left no box unchecked.

“It's hard to believe it went so fast,” Messing said. “When I think about it, I wish I could do it again.”

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated April 27, 2020