MSE Graduate Student Profile: Mey Saied - From Digs to Dentistry

"Coming to Maryland was the right decision.  It's great to know that no matter what, MSE's faculty and staff will get you through, they will support you‚ if this is what you really want and you put in the effort, you have an army on your side."

- Mey Saied

mey saied
  • Hometown: Mey calls three places home: Khartoum, Sudan; Boston, MA; and College Park, MD
  • B.Eng., Materials Science, Imperial College, London, England
  • Master of Philosophy, Materials Science, Royal College of Art, London, England
  • Advisor: Associate Professor Isabel Lloyd
  • Started Program: Fall 2003

MSE Graduate student Mey Saied wants the crowns on your teeth to last longer. She also wants to see the high-quality sedimentary clays found in northern Sudan used to build a materials industry there. And she'd also like to know how the ancient cultures of Napata and Merowi gained the technology of high-temperature firing and knowledge of mineralogy required to use those clays effectively.

Dentistry? Clay? Archaeology?  What department are we in? What most people don't realize is that many discoveries and technological innovations often begin with the creation of new materials, or with fresh insights into existing ones. Saied is an example of just how versatile a field materials science and engineering can be.

Saied works in the Ceramics Materials Laboratory, headed by her advisor, MSE Associate Professor Isabel Lloyd. Her research centers on the creation of novel types of glass used in the manufacture of composite dental crowns, with the goal of making them as durable as possible.

Dental crowns (also known as "caps") may be made of solid metal (often a gold alloy), solid porcelain, or solid resin; or may be a composite of porcelain fused to metal or other materials. Metal crowns generally have the longest lifespan, but are highly visible.  Solid porcelain crowns are the most attractive but weakest, and are usually only used for front teeth.

The cores of many composite dental crowns are made of metal, or very strong but unnatural-looking ceramics such as zirconia (zirconium dioxide) and/or alumina (aluminum oxide, a very hard crystalline material). A porcelain veneer is laid over the core to make it look more like a tooth. While a natural-looking option and a good compromise between solid metal and solid porcelain or resin, over time the veneer may crack and break off.

A vial containing one of the custom-designed glasses Saied uses to test the effectiveness of dental joins. The small pieces of glass, called frit, will be applied to crown core material.

Porcelain veneers may be joined to the core of a crown in several ways, and the quality and effectiveness of a join play a major role in the lifespan of the crown. Saied is creating a new type of glass that she will use to fuse a ceramic core to a porcelain veneer. She believes glass will solve many of the problems associated with veneer breakdown because it expands and contracts with thermal changes. If glass is fused into a crown in a state of compression during manufacture, and later a crack begins to form, the glass begins to decompress. As it spreads out as a result of the decompression, it pushes the crack shut.

Saied has planned her research in three major stages. First, she needs to develop glass with just the right properties to create an optimum join between the core of a crown and its porcelain veneer.  Once she is able to use the glass in joins, the next step is to examine the interdiffusion between (mingling of) the layers of the glass and other crown materials to see how that affects the strength of the bond. The third stage will determine the feasibility of her materials in dental application by exposing them to "cyclic conditions" that mimic those in the mouth‚such as the effects of food and water, saliva, heat and cold, and bite strength‚Äîto see how well a new type of crown would hold up and how long it would last.  The ultimate goal is consumer implementation: the manufacture and use of new and improved dental crowns. Currently, Saied is in the first stage of her research, engineering glass and studying its ability to join with other materials.

Saied working in the Ceramic Materials Laboratory with Joey Slepitza, an intern from Eleanor Roosevelt High School. Saied and Andrews are placing her specially-developed glass between two layers of dental ceramic tiles. The "sandwich" of materials will then be placed in a furnace, where the glass will melt and join the two tiles together. They will then examine the fused materials for crazing, cracking caused by a mismatching in thermal expansion and contraction that may occur during cooling.

Saied's road to studying dental ceramics at the University of Maryland is one most people wouldn't expect, but it illustrates just how flexible an education and career in materials science and engineering can be. She earned her undergraduate degree in materials science at the Imperial College in London, England.  It was there that she became interested in the field because of the school's collaboration with the Victoria and Albert Museum on restoration and provenance projects using science and engineering applications. Next it was on to graduate school at the Royal College of Art.

You read correctly: she went to an art school!  Saied studied in the Department of Ceramics—as in, "pottery and sculpture"—but it wasn't because she'd had a change of heart about her career (although, she tells us, she had long been interested in art). One of only three science students in the school at the time, Saied continued to investigate materials, this time clays.  She had a personal connection to the subject of her thesis, a high-quality kaolinite (China) clay found in her native country, Sudan. One of her goals was to determine whether the Sudanese could use this natural resource to set up their own ceramics industry. There had once been a thriving ceramics industry in Sudan, thousands of years ago, in what used to be Nubia.  And that's where the archaeology comes in.

She did field work in Sudan with Sudan University's College of Applied Arts, and Khartoum University's Department of Geology, studying the fine ceramic work of the ancient northern Sudanese/upper Nile cultures of Napata and Merowi. Saied realized these societies would have needed specialized technology to fire the koalinite clays at the very high temperatures they require, and a knowledge of mineralogy for their manufacture into products. She wanted to understand how they worked with their materials, and how their methods might be applicable to modern industry.

After completing her master's degree. Saied returned to Sudan to work for the United Nations' World Food Program. "I felt it was important to give back at that time," she says. "I worked in the Reporting and Information division and as a member of the gender task force for a year and a half, using my analytical and language skills." During this time she continued her association with the region's archaeological digs, and ultimately participated in producing a documentary about Nubian culture and the science of archaeology.

The decision to join the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Maryland was, for Saied, a combination of the right place, right time, and right people. She had come from Boston to Maryland one summer to visit a friend, and decided to have a look around the engineering buildings. "I ran into [Associate] Professor [Ichiro] Takeuchi," she recalls, "and he spent some time with me, telling me about his research and hearing what I had in mind.  Then he took me to Professor [Lourdes] Salamanca-Riba, and she spent time with me‚ it was completely unscheduled.  That's what really made it [for me]." Attending, however, wasn't so simple.  Initially, no funding was available for Saied, but once again the right combination of people and services came through for her. Through the efforts of MSE Professor and Chair Robert Briber, and MSE Assistant Director of Student Services Dr. Kathleen Hart, she was able to secure an initial two years' of funding from the Center for Minorities in Science and Engineering and other university entities. 

Fortunately, Saied doesn't have to worry about funding anymore. In 2005, she won the Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award Predoctoral Fellowship for Minority Students, a high-profile, competitive five-year grant funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The fellowship supports minority students engaged in cross-disciplinary research in biomedical, behavioral sciences, or health services. Saied's proposal based on her research, "Effects of glass joins on performance and lifetime of layered ceramic systems," was the top-scorer among those submitted.

For Saied, the Department's faculty has made her Clark School experience a very positive one.  Returning to materials science after a 9-year absence, she found she needed some help and guidance to get back into field and life as a graduate student. "It's not an easy situation if you don't have people who want to help you and who are a little bit patient," she explains. "I appreciate that our faculty is down-to-earth, supportive, and helpful. They really want you to learn. People make the time for you. They're invested in making sure that you succeed." Saied also enjoys the interdisciplinary academics, and the opportunities to work with other educational, industrial, and government institutions that collaborate with the Department.

After completing her doctorate, Saied is interested in both continuing her research and teaching. She feels it's important for people to learn about materials science and engineering. "Materials are the basis of everything in industry," she says. "It's foundation science—if you want to build or make anything, you need to know and understand materials."

Mey Saeid received her Ph.D. in May 2009 and became a post-octoral fellow in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech, where she continued her work on biomaterials, focusing on tissue engineering with Professor Gilda Barabino.