Faces of the Foundation: Paul Lagace

Faces of the Foundation
posted: 5/21/2018

listed in Faces of the Foundation

Paul Lagace entered MIT as an undergraduate in 1974 and has been there ever since. His third-floor office is packed wall-to-wall with books and technical manuals, materials samples and souvenirs from a life at the cutting edge of the aerospace industry.

Lagace didn’t always plan on spending his entire career at a university: His generation was the first in his family to go to college, but his love of engineering had deep roots. Both Lagace’s grandfather and great-grandfather built churches and other large buildings, a trade Lagace was steeped in growing up. “So, from a very young age, I got to learn how things were built,” he said.

The love of building found direction in the space race – Sputnik was launched mere weeks after Lagace was born, and a year before he entered high school, Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the moon. So by the time he arrived at MIT, Lagace was enthusiastic about building flying machines.

“It’s neat because it’s very practical. Doing real things and making a difference were very important to me,” he says. His chosen specialty would be even more practical – Lagace studies the structure – and failure – of materials important to aerospace applications, helping ensure our planes don’t fall apart in the air.

Lagace’s passion for the field was stoked by his year in Unified Engineering, the core engineering class every MIT aeronautics & astronautics student takes. He returned as an undergraduate tutor, and, thanks to his Hertz Fellowship, was able to volunteer to teach it as a graduate student, “I wouldn’t have been able to explore that without the Hertz Fellowship,” he says.

In graduate school at MIT, Lagace began studying the properties of a class of materials just making their way into aerospace applications. Composite materials – like the graphite-epoxy composites that Lagace wrote his thesis on – can be much stronger and stiffer for their given density. They can also be manufactured to be strong along a particular direction, making them attractive in applications where weight is everything. “They were very new, which made that a very interesting area to pursue,” recalls Lagace.

The Hertz Fellowship made the research more interesting, by opening new pathways of research. “I felt the freedom to play around in my research,” says Lagace. Thanks to his practice finding new questions to ask, “I learnt better how to do research,” he says.

As an undergraduate researcher, Lagace had begun to make the composite material samples for his research in the lab, increasing the flexibility he had to work with the precise samples he wanted to study. But he noticed that there was not yet any well-ordered way to learn the essential skills for materials manufacture.

“In those days, the knowledge of how to make these things sat in the back room of companies,” recalls Lagace. As a graduate student, then, Lagace began to explore these techniques in-depth using knowledge gathered from visits to corporate labs and his own experience to develop curricula that captured the collective wisdom of manufacturers hoping to work with these new, exciting materials.

Combining his skills in teaching and manufacturing, Lagace would lead an MIT program to bring that knowledge out of the corporate back rooms and into the lab and classroom. This knowledge was important to modernizing the engineering program because Lagace knew students and researchers would need to understand from early on how different building things with composite materials is from building things with metals.

“It’s even more important to consider design and manufacture in composites,” says Lagace. The very differences that made composites so attractive for aerospace can make even simple manufacturing steps difficult and unintuitive for those who have only worked with metals. As a result, simple steps in the manufacturing process must be considered by the designer from the beginning. “Even drilling a hole – you can’t use regular metal bits,” says Lagace.

His years at MIT have left him with deep roots in the MIT and greater Boston communities. He is one of the only if not the only, person to have taken Unified Engineering and then taught it as an undergrad tutor, a graduate assistant, and a faculty member. Off-campus Lagace has long enjoyed refereeing high school football games, a hobby that took up many of his autumn weekends.

Four decades after starting his Hertz Fellowship, Lagace says he is still learning, thanks in no small part to the intellectual community at MIT. “You cannot find a congregation of undergraduate students like we have here anywhere in the world,” he says. “They push you and keep making you learn your entire life!”

Like Lagace’s students, the materials he studies keep pushing him to learn more. In the last few decades, as new technologies such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) have allowed researchers to visualize the damage forming inside a composite structure prior to it reaching its breaking point, researchers like Lagace get to reconsider decades of built-up understanding. “We’ve got 30 to 40 years of so-called knowledge that we have to reanalyze now,” he says.