Beth Last

Meet Beth Last, MCL Research Staff

Beth was introduced to Materials Characterization Laboratory as a graduate student who needed to use the electron microscopy tools that MCL offered. In her graduate work, Beth learned to make use of MCL’s sample preparation, x-ray diffraction, electron microscopy -- including energy dispersive x-ray spectroscopy and electron back scatter diffraction techniques.

“MCL has some of the best equipment for characterizing materials, and when I needed help, MCL staff members were there to answer questions,” she says.

This made it easier for her when job hunting as graduation approached to realize she wanted to continue doing research and liked working in a lab. MCL offered her both. Beth started at MCL in October 2018. She works with students on projects across the university – from the space cement program within Civil Engineering, to additive manufactured metals with CIMP-3D, to a project with an Art History and Anthropology professor, to a project with a plastic engineering professor at Penn State Behrend. “Each day is exciting and interesting, as something new comes into the lab,” she says.

Beth is originally from the lake-effect snow belt region of Lake Erie, from a small town just south of Buffalo, New York, called Hamburg. She started her college career at Penn State Behrend, in Erie, Pa., in the engineering program. At the end of her two years there, she joined the Engineering Science and Mechanics (EMS) department at University Park. After exploring the diverse engineering paths the department offers, Beth settled on a materials focus. Her bachelor’s and master’s theses explored the fabrication of an electrode device for measuring corrosion rates of novel magnesium-titanium thin film materials. Her doctoral thesis switched topics to the microstructure and thermo-mechanical characterization of additive manufactured nickel-titanium shape memory alloys. She will receive her doctoral degree in May 2019.

Her interest in science began at an early age due to success in her math and science classes. Her parents, both Penn State graduates with degrees in petroleum and natural gas engineering, noted her abilities and encouraged her to think of engineering as a future career. “As a child, I associated being an engineer with what my parents did – and, as a child, my parent’s discussions about their work never seemed interesting to me, at all. Growing older, I began to realize the vastness of what an engineer, or someone in a STEM-related field, could work on,” Beth recalls.

Her role in MCL

“My main priority is within the X-ray Scattering Lab. XRD, in general, is used to identify the phases or crystal structures within a material. I work on the new Empyrean II system, which was installed in November 2018. We’re able to easily switch between radiation sources and we have multiple stages and optics for running the system in different configurations. This system has easily expanded the capabilities of the XRD lab by at least 25%,” she explains. “There is just so much that this system can do.”

For example, the system can work with very small samples for doing microdiffraction (irradiated area spot size down to 50 microns); they can work with Fe-, Mn-, Ni- containing materials with different radiation sources to bring down the noise due to sample fluorescence, and they can now obtain Debye rings for polymers through metals due to a new 2D area detector.

Compared to the other XRD systems within the lab, the new Empyrean II system can be run with multiple radiation sources and can achieve a small spot size. With Fe-, Mn-, or Ni-containing materials, when run with Cu radiation, one sees sample fluorescence – you’re not able to easily identify the location of the peaks and you have a high background intensity. To identify peaks, one may need to run for a very long time. By switching to another radiation source, running materials which contain these elements is no longer a problem – fast scans (within 20 minutes) can easily be run and good statistics can be obtained for these materials.

The small spot size is advantageous when the sample is very small or when a researcher needs to measure a small and precise location on their sample. One project that she has worked on was with professors in art history and anthropology. They took small (sample area less than 2 mm2) scrapings from old murals from churches in Mexico. With the microdiffraction optics, she were able to irradiate just their sample so that she could identify the phases that made up the paint within the samples.

Additionally, MCL is expanding its capabilities into mechanical characterization. Beth will be leading the mechanical thrust area. Currently, MCL has a dynamic mechanical analyzer (DMA), and the lab will be purchasing a microindenter and load frames. With the load frames, MCL will also be purchasing a variety of grips, load cells, a fluid bath, a furnace, a moderate temperature chamber, and a digital image correlation package to be able to cater to the wide range of materials that come through MCL.

Beth says she enjoys that moment when something just clicks – that moment when either she or a student she is training is able to make a connection. “There are so many unanswered questions and unknowns out there that are just waiting for someone to answer,” she says. “I like that part when you are finally able to figure something out, that ‘ah-ha!’ moment, when you’re able to answer that question.”

When not at work

“When not at work, I like to bake (not cook) and quilt. I enjoy making breads and desserts (I have a big sweet tooth) and jam. I especially enjoy making jam from fruits that I’ve picked myself, as I love being outdoors in the fresh sunshine. I enjoy making quilts – I like cutting up tiny pieces of fabric and reassembling it a beautiful quilt.”

Contact Beth at

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