Dr. Kathryn Wahl Receives Navy Meritorious Civilian Service Award

10/31/2008 - 69-08r
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Dr. Kathryn Wahl, a research materials engineer at the Naval Research Laboratory, has received the Navy Meritorious Civilian Service Award. She is recognized for "exceptional contributions to the advancement of Naval Research in the fields of contact mechanics and the chemistry of adhesion, friction, and wear."

Dr. Wahl is recognized as among the most distinguished researchers in her field. Her research has established the role of solid lubricant mobility in controlling contact during sliding, identifying environmental effects on contact dynamics, and correlating friction behavior with the chemistry of the interface. She also developed new methods to quantitatively measure and map the contact stiffness and elastic modulus of materials with submicron spatial resolution. This new "scanning nanomechanics" technique, which has been commercialized, is capable of mapping elastic and visco-elastic properties of worn surfaces, composites, polymers, and nanostructures. Most recently, she has developed quantitative physical imaging and spectroscopic methods to explain the adhesion and curing of barnacle bioadhesives. Her work is advancing scientists' understanding of underwater glue curing and approaches to antifouling.

Dr. Wahl received a B.A. in Physics and Mathematics from St. Olaf College in 1987, and a Ph.D. in Materials Science and Engineering from Northwestern University in 1992. She came to the NRL as a National Research Council postdoctoral fellow in the Tribology Section of NRL's Chemistry Division and studied friction, wear and interfacial film formation of model solid lubricant coatings. Since joining the research staff at NRL in 1995, her research has focused on fundamental physics and chemistry of sliding and adhesive interfaces, for contacts ranging from macroscopic to nanometer-scale. All of these studies have pointed to the importance of interfacial films and their chemistry, rheology, and mechanics.

In research efforts, working with NRL's Dr. Irwin Singer, they have demonstrated how interfacial films extend the life of sliding contacts through lubricant transfer processes, how coating microstructure influences friction and wear, and how gas-surface interactions influence superlow friction. The ex situ surface science studies of worn surfaces motivated development of instrumentation enabling in situ (within the sliding contact) tribology coupling chemical analysis with friction and wear sensing. Now, experiments to quantify, in real time, the chemistry, dynamics, thickness, and friction transients are possible through in situ instrumentation developed around both micro-Raman and Attenuated Total Reflectance Fourier Transform Infrared (ATR- FTIR) spectroscopies.

Dr. Wahl has also conducted investigations of contact mechanics phenomena at the nanoscale by combining scanned probe microscopy and instrumented nanoindentation approaches. In collaboration with NRL's Dr. Richard Colton and Dr. Syed Asif (now at Hysitron, Inc.), nanomechanics instrumentation applying AC force modulation has resulted in realization of a significant advance in scanned probe microscopy - quantitative mechanical properties measurements in an image format, or stiffness mapping. These new surface mechanics tools are being used for fundamental studies that explore the limits of continuum contact mechanics in small adhesive junctions, as well as applied materials problems like measuring mechanical anisotropy in spider silk and bioinspired nanofibrillar columnar polymer films.

Dr. Wahl served as interim Program Officer at the Office of Naval Research in Solid State & Materials Chemistry in 2002. Dr. Wahl recently chaired the 2008 Tribology Gordon Research Conference, and is the incoming Program Chair for the International Conference on Metallurgical Coatings and Thin Films (ICMC-TF) in 2009. She also serves on advisory panels for the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH-Zurich) Department of Materials and the Princeton University Center for Complex Materials. She is co-editing the upcoming focus issue on "In Situ Tribology" of the Materials Research Society's monthly publication, the Materials Research Bulletin. She has served on the Editorial Advisory Board of Review of Scientific Instruments, and currently serves on the Editorial Boards of Tribology Letters and Wear. She is a fellow of American Vacuum Society, and member of the Materials Research Society, American Chemical Society, and Society of Tribologists and Lubrication Engineers. She was awarded the NRL Chemistry Division Young Investigator award in 1997.

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