NEWS | May 28, 2021

Dr. Lavina Backman Celebrates Her Heritage and STEM Career

By Samina Mondal, U.S. Naval Research Laboratory Corporate Communications

For Lavina Backman, a materials engineer in the Spacecraft Engineering Division at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL), her Asian American & Pacific Islander (AAPI) heritage has served as the driving force for her desire to work within a diverse community.  

As an Indian woman who grew up in the Philippines, Backman was surrounded by a plethora of cultures, attitudes, income levels, belief systems and values. 

“Growing up in that environment gave me my sense of the importance of community, networks and family, but also the value of hard work,” Backman said. “The interconnectedness of my upbringing has shaped my perspective on the value of good networks both personally and professionally. My heritage continues to enrich my life in various ways on a daily basis as well, through music, art, stories, and food, among other things.” 

In addition to understanding the value of community and networks, Backman learned resilience and resourcefulness from both the Indian and Filipino cultures she grew up with. From navigating set-backs and detours to looking for opportunities within various fields, Backman’s cultural upbringing kept her motivated and moving toward achieving her goals.  

Backman’s most significant professional milestone thus far has been the publication of two papers describing a technique that Backman and her graduate advisor Elizabeth J. Opila, Ph.D., a materials science professor with the University of Virginia, developed to understand the oxidative degradation of a new class of materials called high-entropy ultra-high temperature ceramics. 

“There are very few materials that have melting temperatures greater than 3,000 degrees Celsius, and most of them react quite rapidly with oxygen, resulting in failure. This is why tungsten, which has a melting temperature of around 3,400 degrees Celsius, is enclosed in vacuum or inert gas when used in an incandescent bulb. When the bulb is on, the filament can reach around 2,500 degrees Celsius. In air, however, that bulb would burn out almost instantly due to the rapid oxidation of tungsten. These high entropy ceramic materials represent a paradigm shift in the design of ultra-high temperature ceramics, which are being considered for applications requiring resistance to extremely high temperatures approaching 2000 degrees Celsius in highly reactive environments,” Backman said. “This shift enables a way to tailor both mechanical and oxidation properties to meet the application’s needs in a way that current materials cannot.”

“Since oxidation is one of the main concerns for material stability at these ultra-high temperatures, our contribution to the understanding of how these materials oxidize, I believe, has been impactful,” said Backman. 

Backman develops material compositions and synthesizes them into specimens to characterize ultra-high temperature ceramics’ mechanical and oxidation behavior in oxidizing atmospheres for extreme environment applications, such as hypersonics and space, where vehicle speeds are limited by the high temperatures generated at their leading edges by their high speed flight. With better high temperature materials, we can envision a next generation Space Shuttle with a better heat shield that can carry more people or cargo, for example. 

Backman collaborates closely with NRL’s Materials Science & Technology Division’s Multifunctional Materials Branch and the Optical Sciences Division to develop and test these materials. Her research requires specialized equipment to fabricate and characterize the materials developed. The research divisions have provided both access to their facilities and resources, and importantly their longtime expertise in fabricating and characterizing ceramic materials. 

“The combined feedback and discussion from both the MSTD and OSD divisions help me to continuously refine my research approach,” Backman said “The work I do requires a cross-disciplinary approach and benefits from such teamwork.” 

Backman credits her cultural upbringing as the driving force that inspired her to create her own opportunities to succeed. 

“The importance of community in both the Filipino and Indian cultures has played a large part in my motivation to continue volunteering for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) educational outreach, which has greatly impacted my career as a materials engineer at NRL and the opportunity to inspire the researchers of tomorrow,” Backman said. “I absolutely credit being a part of the Filipino and Indian cultures for this perspective and being in a position to promote diversity and inclusion throughout the laboratory.”


About the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory 

NRL is a scientific and engineering command dedicated to research that drives innovative advances for the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps from the seafloor to space and in the information domain. NRL is located in Washington, D.C. with major field sites in Stennis Space Center, Mississippi; Key West, Florida; Monterey, California, and employs approximately 2,500 civilian scientists, engineers and support personnel.

For more information, contact NRL Corporate Communications at (202) 480-3746 or nrlpao@nrl.navy.mil.