Four decades ago, Diran Apelian was an MIT metallurgy grad student with a good camera, a discerning eye, and several languages at his disposal. Born in Cairo and schooled in Beirut before moving to Philadelphia, he spoke Armenian, French, and Italian. Apelian could have gone in many directions, he says, but he chose materials science and engineering.
His pioneering work in solidification processing–including work in molten-metal processing, filtration of metals, and aluminum foundry engineering, which contributed to an improved process for manufacturing aluminum foil–has resulted in numerous awards, including the field’s most prestigious honor, the Acta Materialia Award in Materials and Society, in 2007. Now the Howmet Professor of Mechanical Engineering and director of the Metal Processing Institute at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), Apelian is developing a process that has the potential to dramatically reduce energy consumption in aluminum processing. His recycled, recast aluminum could also increase fuel efficiency in cars by reducing their weight.
Apelian feels fortunate to have joined a field that continues to surprise and delight him. He earned a bachelor’s degree in metallurgical engineering from Drexel University in 1968. After completing his MIT degree, he began his career in the product research department at Bethlehem Steel. Then he moved into academia, first returning to Drexel for both teaching and administrative posts and then on to WPI in 1990; there he served as provost for six years before returning to research.
Sustainability is a new passion. “Our community needs to be more of an advocate for world issues–basic needs like energy, sustainable mobility, housing,” he says. As the new president of the 10,000-member Minerals, Materials & Metals Society, he has found a platform for this advocacy.
Apelian’s MIT experiences continue to influence his life. His studies under pioneering metallurgist Merton Flemings resulted in both intense learning and lifelong friendships with fellow students. MIT also fostered a lifelong interest in photography: his first-year lab was adjacent to the lab of strobe-photography pioneer Harold “Doc” Edgerton, and he took courses with legendary photographer Minor White. Recently, the curator of WPI’s Gordon Library museum invited Apelian to exhibit 36 photographs chosen from his work over the decades. “Taking photographs makes you more cognizant of the world around you–shapes and structural forms,” he says.
Along the way, Apelian and his wife, Seta, an orthodontist, raised two daughters, now grown. “It’s been a wonderful journey,” he says. “And it’s still going on.”