Ali Khater is making stronger, more flexible materials and communities

'3D printing is revolutionary but novel materials are needed to push 3D printing forward into industry.'

Ali Khater

Rice University student Ali Khater develops stimulus-responsive materials and composite materials for 3D printing using an extrusion 3D printing process.

“3D printing is revolutionary but novel materials are needed to push 3D printing forward into industry," said Khater, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Materials Science and NanoEngineering. Materials for extrusion 3D printing can be modified from a liquid state to a more solid-like material, called a viscoelastic solid, that retains its shape after extruding to form 3D structures. 3D printing materials can reduce material waste during fabrication and reduce costs in storage and manufacturing.”

While Khater is developing materials for 3D printing purposes, he is simultaneously demonstrating the tunability of material properties with exotic additives. Can a brittle material bend more, can it resist more weight or impact? Can other thermal or electrical properties be changed?

Khater said, “I work to develop material systems using nano and micro additives. These systems are called composite materials that take properties from multiple components into one system. Controlling the ratios of composite materials can be used to tune the properties of materials like strength, toughness, and flexibility for different industry-driven applications.

"With epoxy, for example, I have demonstrated how 3D printing can be used to process carbon nanotubes to enhance the mechanical properties of epoxy or how molecular machines can make a brittle material, like epoxy or cement, more flexible. Developing these materials will fuel the industry 4.0 revolution and contribute to the working body of materials for the future of manufacturing and materials.”

Behind the scenes, Khater is also working to develop a stronger and more flexible academic support community by mentoring students in his courses and research group. When he served as a teaching assistant (TA) in MSNE 501, Khater’s spirit of camaraderie made it easy for students to approach him for assistance. He worked alongside his peers and mentors to nurture the course into a community for MSNE students to create a comfortable environment for the students to connect and to learn with each other and with industry and academic professionals.

“My parents are softhearted. I learned from them how to give altruistically,” he said. “My mom has a very soft heart and I saw how her giving nature brought light into her friends and her family. Everyone always sought after her company and advice, I saw that even from when I was young. And my dad taught me the gift of giving in a way that is difficult to describe. He did what he had to to make sure that my siblings and I never felt difficulty or lost out on our educations no matter what he had to give up for himself.

“Throughout my experiences, I noticed the most pleasant and fulfilled were those who gave without asking for anything in return. My teachers, my friends, my neighbors and my family each contributed uniquely to create a community that fostered a community that supported each other and wanted the best for each other. Eventually, I came to marry someone who embodied the spirit of altruism and she supports me in my endeavors to be a meaningful member of the community. She picks me up when I am down and gives me the push I need to always be my best self.”

Regardless of where his own path might lead, Khater wanted to be the kind of person who encourages the success of others, particularly in academic communities. As he began responding to requests for feedback or support, he discovered an unexpected benefit. Whether or not they had received Khater’s support, other individuals in the group began offering to share from their own areas of expertise with the net result of an increasingly strong network that lifted up all the members.

Khater said, “I am driven to support and to mentor the community because that is the opportunity that I had growing up. I always looked for someone wiser to guide me and each mentor offered me a unique perspective. When I needed support to reach my potential, someone was always there, extending a hand or words to motivate me onward.

“I understood early on that everyone is uniquely equipped to tackle different and specific challenges. Some are gifted in mathematics or science while others are more creative, better writers, or more artistic. These are all critical skills for communicating effectively especially in science where writing and schematics convey a message through words and through art. When I was younger, I excelled in math and the sciences and I sought support where it was needed. I enjoyed teaching, especially in areas that I was confident in and seeing others understand something is highly rewarding – I love to be a part of their success.”

At the same time, he was beginning to offer support to his peers and new students in his Rice academic community, Khater was modeling how to respond to the challenge of high expectations by continuing to seek ways to improve his own skills and experience. He said his communication skills grew precisely because he was challenged to do so.

“At Rice University, the expectations are very high for Ph.D. candidates and other graduate students. Faculty members who really want to see you succeed may apply extra pressure to prompt you to reach a little higher. In addition, my research sponsors at Aramco Americas also have high expectations for my work ethic and results. The faculty and sponsor expectations were communicated to me through multiple avenues and I realized that I needed to learn to communicate my results effectively to an array of people with different backgrounds,” he said.

For Khater, communicating with the faculty and graduate students in his discipline poses no problem. They are already familiar with the background and don’t need more than a minor introduction before Khater dives into his research update, showing what he understands about the problem and the next steps he proposes to solve it.

“But people who are not directly involved with my work might lose interest and require an abbreviated description. Rather than sharing intimate details about the research, I explain the problems, the work, and the significance as it relates to real-world problems. They just need an understanding of what we’ve accomplished and the impact of that work. Every presentation that I deliver I aim to target the audience and communicate using information and language that the audience can understand and take away valuable information.

“Learning to easily communicate complex topics and convey them simply through different mediums — writing, speaking, presentation slides, schematics, plotted data— these are all methods for me to effectively communicate what I am doing, what the results are, and why they are important.”

He said his undergraduate quantum mechanics professor often said “a picture is worth a thousand equations,” but Khater didn’t fully appreciate the words until he realized not everyone could understand his own research without clear graphical representations.

Khater felt dissatisfied with his early presentations if they did not appear to connect well with his audience, so he began trying to more closely emulate the high-quality publications and presentations of experts in his field. He said, “We have frequent group meetings and guest speakers, so there is ample exposure to high-quality technical communications in my field. I can say with certainty that my verbal and graphical communication skills have excelled directly from the experience of being put under the spotlight and because of the quality of work that is expected of me.”

His pursuit of excellence in communicating his research to a wide range of audiences has provided fodder for another area of community support. These days, Khater is happy to advise new graduate students on their own communications.

“Communication is the key aspect to the success of your work,” he said. “The way you communicate your work can lead to acknowledgment or rejection so the way the story is conveyed is essential and requires technical creativity. There will only be a handful of people who will understand your project. To capture the attention of audiences outside of your field, you will have to communicate with less information in a broader, more informal manner that clearly highlights the key achievements and the significance of that work.

“Surround yourself with people and experiences better than your current ability. If you are reading an article that conveys the work with conviction clearly and with excellence, then think about what makes it such successful work. It is the same with speakers; learn from those who give really strong presentations. But also learn from the less successful papers and presentations - where did they lose your attention?”

Khater encourages students by reminding them that no one can communicate effectively to every audience simultaneously. He said, “Grade school students don’t need the breadth of information that a graduate student group needs. Respecting the background of your audience goes a long way in getting your point across.

“Learning to communicate properly to different audiences includes seeking and using feedback from those around you. Don’t be shy about asking for advice and critiques. We can all find ways to improve especially when we learn from each other’s strengths and weaknesses.”

This article was originally published for the ACTIVATE Engineering Communication program.