In the pursuit of understanding the unknown, Audrey Martin, Corrosion Metallurgical Engineer at W. L. Gore & Associates, chronicles the story of taking opportunities, and the tough questions needing answers along the way. Audrey’s work spans both engineering and science, where she works in research and development (R&D), and supports product development for medical implants used to save and improve lives in patients. Audrey’s work is to ensure that these products are corrosion-resistant and safe for patients to use for long amounts of time. Corrosion, the gradual destruction of materials through interaction with the environment, is all around us and affects our lives every day from the products we use to the cars we drive. 

Audrey received her undergraduate degree in Mechanical Engineering from UC Berkeley, and a P.h.D from Dartmouth College in New Hampshire in Engineering Science. Her focus became corrosion of biomaterials, materials that have been engineered to interact with a biological environment (such as our body) in a certain way.

What got you interested in corrosion engineering?

“Many scientists say this, but I came upon my field by accident!” Audrey’s interest in medical devices started in her undergraduate degree at UC Berkeley, where there were opportunities to work in orthopedic implants. She began work with shoulder replacements and the material science behind them. Material science is an interdisciplinary field, where scientists and engineers try to understand the application and properties of matter. Audrey then went on to an internship in San Francisco where she did research in cadaver-based spine biomechanics. Here, she was able to study implants used to make adjustments to the spine, particularly to address spinal deformity. “I got to see firsthand the interventions that were possible, and ask questions about how best to address this problem.” This work was personally interesting to Audrey, as she has scoliosis, which is a sideways curvature of the spine. 

In her Ph.D. studies, Audrey had access to one of the largest repositories of retrieved implants from patients. Audrey explained that with a large number of implants, she could look at what factors could possibly cause corrosion. Most of the implants she studied were modular hip replacements. Audrey got pulled into this research.  Corrosion can, in some cases, lead to mechanical failure of negative local tissue reactions.

“There are so many factors and nuances in implant devices, some of which can have major implications for a patient.”

“My research feeds back into society, and working in industry means that there is no mediator between learning and getting into actual development,” Audrey mentioned that at W. L. Gore & Associates, she can follow what is relevant to patients in the world right now. Not every patient is the same, and being able to understand this spectrum can lead to more questions about what we don’t know. With direct feedback into society, Audrey can support the creation of safer products. “Overall, it is inspiring to see how devices are improving and saving lives.”

Audrey’s days as an engineer vary and have changed significantly due to the pandemic. She often works from home now. Audrey explains that much of her work consists of writing reports and coordinating reviews for the testing of new devices. Sometimes, Audrey will spend a day in the lab running samples and collaborating with others on research and development projects.

Key questions lead Audrey through her work, relating the past and present to create better and safer devices for the future. “We can look back on the history of medical devices, and not make the same mistakes again.”

“Science is a process of discovery, of continuing to answer questions. Research fosters curiosity, and I really enjoy this.”

What is something unexpected that you have encountered while doing research?

“In science, sometimes you don’t always get the answer you expected.” Audrey uses large bodies of data with variability, and variability means there is some uncertainty. “It can be challenging to work with uncertainty, and work to lessen that uncertainty.” Audrey explains that a critical part of being a thoughtful scientist is learning how to deal with what is unknown. 

Do you have any experience with citizen science projects?

“Citizen science projects have gotten me excited about different types of science!” Audrey recalls a family trip to Santa Cruz where they visited the wharf and encountered a citizen science project in collaboration with UC Santa Cruz and the Exploratorium. On the pier, there are plaques of different colors, and to participate, all you have to do is take a picture of the ocean next to the placard that best matches the ocean color at that time, and post it on social media with the hashtag #scwwatercolor. Scientists somewhere use this data taken directly with the help of the public. “This project got the whole group excited about this research, and everyone could participate!”

Tell me about the challenges you see as a researcher and scientist with communicating to the public about research?

“Communication is something I think about a lot.” Are scientists communicating effectively? How can we become better? These are questions that Audrey asks herself. At an individual level, it is easy to feel that the information is clear from a scientific perspective. However, this is not always the case. For Audrey, communication is a two-way street. Both scientists to scientists need to communicate effectively, as well as scientists to the public. This interaction encourages openness to other perspectives, as well as understanding where misunderstandings come from. “There is a level of responsibility that scientists have in order to become better communicators.”

What could someone do to learn more about corrosion engineering?

Corrosion is everywhere, Audrey says. For example, Flagstaff and other cities with a winter climate salt some roads in preparation for snow, but salt can cause corrosion of the road and in our vehicles. “Pay attention to the things around you, because corrosion impacts life in ways that you may never have thought of before.” 

For Audrey, fostering an attitude of curiosity is important. ‘If you have questions about the way the world works, ask those questions! Scientists love to talk about their work.” Audrey also recommends contacting experts in the field and investigating what interests you, and taking opportunities when they arise. “I found my field on accident by taking the opportunities that came to me.”

Besides your important work, what else do you enjoy doing and learning about?

Audrey has been following more is astrophysics and astronomy. “My son is enamored with the Moon, and so I have been trying to look more into the discoveries in this field that we can be excited about.” She listens to the Lowell Observatory new podcast Star Stuff. Audrey is interested in the exploration of deep space and being able to see places that are far away from us. Audrey mentions that she also has a side passion for conservation and wildlife rehabilitation. “The interactions between humans and animals are fascinating, as well as learning about what we can do about this.” Audrey used to volunteer at rehabilitation centers with wildlife.

Outside of engineering, I am an avid tea drinker and love to curl up with a good book from Brightside Bookshop. I also enjoy hiking with my family and spending time outside. 

Interview and article by Communications Intern, Claire Gibson