The primary role of a materials science engineer is to take knowledge acquired in fields such as physics, chemistry and crystallography and apply that knowledge to practical applications such as the construction of machines, buildings or new forms of matter. The field of materials science engineering is a broad, cross-disciplinary field that serves many functions in the modern industrialized world. Materials scientists themselves might be focused only on the theoretical nature of the properties of matter. It is their role to discover these properties and how their physical interactions change depending on local conditions. Engineers, however, focus on what can be done with the body of materials knowledge that has been established by science.
A materials science engineer works on projects involving many of the physical sciences as well as some of the life sciences. His or her education, therefore, must include a wide range of disciplines. It is not uncommon to find researchers in the field who hold multiple degrees, often in physics or chemistry and some form of engineering, with expertise in genetics or microbiology as well. The primary industries that will continue to have a strong demand for a materials science engineer are those of medicine; space, military and energy applications; and microprocessor engineering. This could mean that a materials science engineer would work in such diverse fields as oil exploration, cancer treatment, bridge construction or aircraft design, to name a few.
There is a wide range of opportunities open to a materials science engineer. The field traditionally focused on applying materials knowledge from the study of metallurgy, ceramics and polymers to traditional construction methods. Materials research is now being coupled with engineering advances in previously unheard of ways. A materials science engineer might work with a pharmacological company to develop targeted drug delivery devices for tumor cells, with a military organization to develop self-healing armor or with a clothing manufacturer to develop material that is impervious to stains. All of these applications have been made possible by materials science engineers, and many more are likely to be developed.
One of the prominent fields for a materials science engineer is in the research and development of nanotechnology. Nanotechnology is also a cross-disciplinary field, concerned with the engineering of materials and machines on a scale — in at least one dimension, such as width or length — of 100 nanometers or less. A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter long. To illustrate the size involved in nanotechnology, an average human red blood cell is generally about 100 nanometers in diameter.