Mary C. Boyce is Professor of Mechanical Engineering, Provost Emerita of Columbia University, and Dean Emerita of The Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science at Columbia University. In an audio interview ahead of her 2024 George Dieter Lecture at the University of Maryland, she spoke with UMD Mechanical Engineering Chair Harry Dankowicz about emerging developments in mechanical engineering, the growing importance of interdisciplinary approaches, the role of mentorship, and other topics. Below is a transcript of the edited audio interview.


Mechanicsthe science of interaction and coupling between bodies of substance, and the science of the movement, deformation, and function that results. Mechanics is a science of the small and the large, of the fast and the slow, of the sudden and the steady. Dr. Mary C. Boyce, Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Columbia University :

Mechanics has a remarkable ability to help us understand so much about the world around uswhether it’s the natural world or the fabricated world. In looking at how do products, how do structures, how do natural entities actually function and behave, what are their mechanical properties, but also how do they move, how are the materials put together to achieve certain mechanical behavior and properties?

Of course, physics is the very beginning basis for mechanics. And that's, of course, kind of where I got hooked on mechanics is really seeing how physics engaged with the world and us understanding the world. In mechanics also, we're not just bringing in physics, but we're bringing in what we know about materials. We're now bringing in what we know, at least in my field, a lot of what's going on chemically in the underlying microstructure, we're bringing in biology, we're seeing how all these things fit together. 

In this framework of mechanics that is just so powerful because it really has very fundamental underlying principles on forces and displacements, stresses and strains. But then how does temperature affect that? You know, how do other stimuli affect this?

So, I think of how can mechanics be really helping us understand the structure and function of almost anything, but then also used to predict it, not just to understand, but to predict, and then to also design and not only design that structure, but design how to actually make that structure.

Even when I teach, I try to make it such that when a student leaves my classroom, whether it's an undergraduate or graduate, that when they're walking around in the world, they're seeing things differently because they understand how they can bring mechanics to really understand what they're seeing.


Once only a science of what nature has given, mechanics is now also a science of what humans may create. Nature inspires insight and insight generates discovery and discovery derives from collaboration. Dr. Boyce:

Look at all that we can do in really designing polymers now, you know, the molecular structure and how that actually gives properties. Copolymers are polymers that have more than one monomer along the molecular chain, you can have a copolymer that has hard and soft domains, and it can give you very different time constants and rate dependent behavior. So, you can have damping at different rates of loading and different temperatures that different transitions occur. So, there's all sorts of amazing things that you can do as you start to manipulate the molecular structure. 

So, in natural materials we see a lot of copolymers. And they're often molecular chains which have folded domains along the chain. These could be spectrin molecules in a red blood cell. They could be spider web threads. They could be the abyssal threads of mussels. As you start to stretch these molecules, if the load gets too high, it’s able to mitigate that stress transfer the load transfer because the folded domains unravel so it's a way that it's really protecting itself by controlling how much stress gets transferred. 

So now coming to synthetic materials. We're seeing chemists and in collaboration with materials and mechanics start to design molecules that can actually open up under certain stress conditions. So, this whole sense that we're trying we're looking at nature saying, look how nature is able to sort of mitigate stress transfer or absorb energy in different ways and then actually recover from that. Right. Because these can fold back up. So, you actually have a self-healing phenomenon.

Interdisciplinary collaboration

Discovery is a team sport, a collective conversation that merges science and engineering, that brings together diverse disciplines, diverse backgrounds, diverse sets of expertise, tools, and aspirations. A team sport at the edge of knowledge. Dr. Mary Boyce:

I really like to collaborate with people coming from different areas because you also learn a lot and you're exposed to new ways of thinking about maybe the same sort of system, but you're really learning how to think about it coming from a different direction. These other fields are bringing something very different and different way of looking at different tools, different techniques, different sophistication to looking at a problem. 

You know, if you really want to make progress in that area, you're not going to jump to that level of that field and bring that together with your field all by yourself. And they're certainly not going to jump to the level of your mechanics field and be able to make that progress. So, this sense of coming together because you’re each bringing a different, pretty sophisticated mindset and capability to looking at a problem together, it really can push the knowledge forward much faster. So, what's the difficulty in that is you do have to commit to it. You have to commit to also understanding and learning. You have to have that back and forth, that give and take. And you have to have real appreciation for the other field. 

I think the grand challenges are enormous motivators. You know, whether we're talking about climate and sustainability or we're talking about health and medicine, we know we need new ideas, new solutions, new creativity going forward. And engineering has so much power to really be effective and to enable an individual to really contribute in really meaningful and creative ways. 

And I think the fact that you're looking at these challenges bringing multiple fields together also makes engineering more interesting to a lot more people. It opens new questions for fundamental development and materials and analysis and computation. It's not in conflict with the frontiers of knowledge. It actually opens up where we need new frontiers of knowledge. And then those frontiers of knowledge bring the out of the box solutions that we might be looking for in energy or clean water or biomedical devices and health care.


As a practitioner of discovery, you are forever young, alert to opportunity to grow your knowledge and your impact, engaged in sharing, contributing, and giving, finding that space where you and those around you can thrive. Dr. Mary Boyce:

One of the most rewarding things when you're a faculty member is that you have the opportunity to mentor and inspire and encourage students in so many different ways, you know, whether you're the lecturer in front of an undergraduate class, a lab instructor or a research mentor, there are so many different avenues in which you could be a really key person in someone's life and you might not even know it, right? These are all opportunities that you are really touching somebody’s, you know, intellectual life in a way that can be very, very encouraging.

Then obviously when you're now doing mentoring for research because you're much more one on one with your student or your post-doc. You really are feeding off each other. You're not only just mentoring them, but you're feeding off each other. How you actually handle that relationship is really important. Sometimes you're going down a dead end, right? How do you as a mentor recognize it, how your students recognize it, and how do you recover from that and go in an encouraging way, because you still learn great things even when you go down a dead end.

My grandparents all came from Ireland and with pretty much nothing. They fostered education in their children. My mom graduated from high school. She didn't go to college, but my dad went on to college. Education was something my brothers and sisters knew we’d better be good at. We better hunker down. You got to do your homework. But it wasn't like forced on us, it was more like encouraged. And we did not have engineers in the family. They actually fostered each of us to go in the directions that were best suited for us. 

The sense of helping someone find their way and just encouraging it and not forcing it, does that inform your mentorship? It probably informed me as a mentor to realize, okay, let's find the area that works best for the student on this project to help encourage their development and also recognizing that students are coming from so many different backgrounds and bring different ways of thinking of a problem, different skill sets and what they've learned up until that point. And how to harness that while they're developing further in other areas?

This audio podcast is a production of the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Maryland, College Park. Content development and editing by Harry Dankowicz with assistance from Adira Colton, Kathryn Pacheco, and Robert Herschbach. Audio from an interview with Dr. Mary C. Boyce, Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Columbia University,  conducted in March 2024.