Faces of the Foundation: Paul Lagace
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
“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
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.