Faculty member's contributions shine brightly in the classroom and the lab

Author: Eric Nelson
The research and teaching accomplishments of C.T. Sun, Neil A. Armstrong Distinguished Professor of Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering, could fill an encyclopedia.

C.T. SunDuring his more than 40 years at the university, Sun has authored or co-authored nearly 300 journal papers and countless conference proceedings. He’s also served as a thesis advisor to more than 80 PhD students, many whom now serve on the faculties of top engineering schools around the world. Given such prolific output, even Sun’s colleagues find it challenging to highlight one achievement over another.

For example, when the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) and the American Society for Composites (ASC) recognized Sun earlier this year as one of the two inaugural winners of the AIAA-ASC James H. Starnes Jr. Award, it was not for a singular achievement in his field, but for “four decades of unparalleled contributions.”

Sun, whose current research focuses on composite materials, fracture mechanics, structural dynamics, and nanomaterials, is characteristically humble about the distinction. “It’s nice to be recognized, of course, but the respect from peers who are doing similar work is more gratifying than any award,” he says.

Still, the accolades are too numerous to overlook.

In addition to his recent honor, Sun has received the ASC Distinguished Research Award, the AIAA Structural Dynamics and Materials Award, and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) Warner T. Koiter Medal. He’s also been awarded a Fellow of the ASME, ASC, and AIAA and earned several teaching and research awards from Purdue and the College of Engineering.

Sun attributes his success to a strong tradition of scholarly excellence within the School of Aeronautics and Astronautics, which encourages its faculty members to balance their time between the classroom and the laboratory. “Teaching and research are interdependent,” he says. “You really can’t separate one from the other.”

Sun’s role as director of the school’s Composite Materials Laboratory reflects that philosophy. While used primarily for research, the facility is also open to undergraduates enrolled in Sun’s yearly composite materials course. “It gives students hands-on experience with the technology we discuss in the classroom,” Sun says. “They can see the mechanics of composite materials in action.”

For graduate students like Marriner Merrill, who received his PhD at Purdue’s May commencement, Sun’s laboratory is a classroom. With Sun’s guidance and support, Merrill is conducting leading-edge research in nanostructured materials that may someday lead to viable commercial applications.

“The standard advice given to graduate students is that you should choose your thesis advisor more carefully than your spouse,” Merrill says. “From that perspective, I feel very fortunate to be able to work with Dr. Sun. He’s helped me to achieve things that otherwise wouldn’t have been possible.”

Sun believes the possibilities offered by his and Merrill’s continued research efforts are equally achievable. “The technology is still in its infancy and there are numerous challenges, but I think nanomaterials could have the same impact as microelectronics,” he says.

Sun is also confident that support for such research will continue to grow despite the current financial crisis. “We expect additional funding to become available as a result of the new stimulus package,” he says. “I think everyone realizes that the research done at institutions like Purdue is crucial to the future of economy and to maintaining the United States’ competitive edge in the world.”