Six hundred of UT Knoxville Chancellor’s Professor George Pharr’s research worlds would fit within the diameter of a human hair. But the nanoscale materials he studies now figure largely in modern medicine, space exploration, computer hard drives and everyday products like tennis rackets.
For inspiration about his field, he can just look across the dining room table at his wife, Marilyn, who has an artificial heart valve.
"It’s made of pyrolytic carbon, a form of carbon made by decomposing methane gas at high temperatures," he said.
Pharr himself has an artificial lens in one of his eyes – also a product of materials science.
Two things motivate him most: scientific curiosity and those moments when he knows he’s helped a student.
Pharr, who’s been at UT for 20 years, also works hard to recruit students into the materials science program. The field used to be known as metallurgy. That was before the advent of so many new engineered materials.
"Until I got to Rice as an undergraduate, I didn’t even know about materials science," he said. "Even now, beginning engineering students at UT often haven’t heard of materials science," he added. "That’s why we try to get them interested when they first get here or even while they’re still in high school if possible."
In addition to his teaching and research duties and his role as department head in the UT Materials Science and Engineering Department, Pharr holds a joint faculty appointment with nearby Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), which is managed by UT in partnership with Battelle. It is more than an honorary appointment: with it comes access to top research tools and the role of deputy director of the Joint Institute for Advanced Materials (JIAM), scheduled for construction on UT’s new Cherokee Farm campus.
He said the UT-ORNL partnership is of great benefit.
"Materials science is a strength that really distinguishes ORNL from other labs," he said.
Pharr and his wife Marilyn Walker Pharr, a graduate of the UT College of Communications, have two sons: Matthew, 22, who is now working on a doctorate in mechanics at Harvard; and Adam, 19, a civil engineering major at Stanford. The Pharrs have strong ties to East Tennessee. Marilyn’s family has farmed in the Maryville area since 1790.