In This Issue
Summer Bridge Issue on Aeronautics
June 26, 2020 Volume 50 Issue 2
The articles in this issue present the scope of progress and possibility in modern aviation. Challenges are being addressed through innovative developments that will support and enhance air travel in the decades to come.

An Interview with . . . Lisa Eastep, Metallurgist and Roller Derby Competitor

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Author: Lisa Eastep

An Interview with . . .Lisa Eastep, Metallurgist and Roller Derby Competitor

RON LATANISION (RML): Lisa, it’s good to talk with you, what with the disruptions of the coronavirus pandemic. How are things in Rhode Island?

LISA EASTEP: The state started opening this week.

RML: What does that look like?

DR. EASTEP: Restaurants are open for outdoor service. Retail stores are open but they’re limiting how many people go in. Still no personal services, like haircuts. No concerts or sporting events. Movie theaters are still closed. But the one drive-in in the state will open this weekend. So the opening is limited. There are more people out and about than there were, but I don’t think we ever shut down to the same extent you did in Massachusetts.

RML: Yes. We’re on a downward trend in terms of hospitalizations and deaths, but it’s still a challenge.

Lisa, you and I have known each other quite a while—we joined Exponent within a year of each other. When did you join Exponent?

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DR. EASTEP: It was right after my son was born, so it was 2003.

RML: And I joined Exponent in 2002. Then you went to work at Failure Analysis and Prevention in North ­Kingstown, Rhode Island, several years later. When was that?

DR. EASTEP: 2009. I spent about 6 years at Exponent.

RML: So I’ve known you as a metallurgist for quite a while. You’re a physical metallurgist, is that right?

DR. EASTEP: Yes.

RML: And you’ve been practicing for quite a few years, so you have a lot of experience as a metallurgist. Let’s start by hearing a little about your metallurgical history.

DR. EASTEP: I got my undergraduate degree in physical metallurgy in 1993, from Cal Poly in San Luis ­Obispo. Then I got my first consulting gig that ­summer—I helped a professor, who was consulting. I was sort of the grunt, I did some lab work. The next year I started on my master’s degree at Cal Poly. I got my PhD in process metallurgy from Carnegie Mellon in 2000, and then spent 3 years in a steel mill because I needed to get real-world experience before jumping into consulting full-time.

RML: What steel company?

DR. EASTEP: It’s sort of a unicorn in the steel industry, a small, privately held, family-run business called Ellwood Quality Steels. We made carbon and alloy steel for the forging industry—we’d produce the ingots that Scot Forge, Patriot Forge, Wyman Gordon, and others would turn into the final product.

RML: Where is it located?

DR. EASTEP: Sixty miles north of Pittsburgh in New Castle, Pennsylvania.

RML: I know that area. And who was your advisor at Carnegie Mellon?

DR. EASTEP: Dick Fruehan, and the research group was called the Center for Iron and Steelmaking Research. It was a private company–education partnership where steelmaking-related companies would pay an annual fee and guide the research based on challenges in the industry.

RML: What was your thesis topic?

DR. EASTEP: Postcombustion in an electric arc furnace. In the steelmaking industry, they’re always looking for ways to increase energy efficiency. One way is to use an electric arc furnace, with large graphite electrodes to create small lightning bolts in order to melt large quantities of scrap. This method produces a lot of carbon monoxide because there’s a lot of carbon involved.

There was a big push in the industry to use every bit of electric energy that you could to reduce the amount of electricity required. By burning carbon monoxide to carbon dioxide, you could get a lot of energy. Now, as you know, Ron, carbon dioxide and high temperatures in metal are not always the best combination.

We were looking at how much energy we might get by burning carbon monoxide to carbon dioxide, and what the ramifications might be when the carbon ­dioxide comes in contact with the metal. I did some computational fluid dynamics modeling of the electric arc furnace and simultaneously did kinetic experiments of iron in a carbon dioxide-rich environment at elevated temperatures, around 1477K and up to 1600K. That was my research. I tried to marry the modeling and the lab work and the conclusion of my research was don’t do it.

RML: As I listen to you describe your thesis, you sound like a chemical metallurgist.

DR. EASTEP: Actually, I’m both, but where I’ve ­chosen to take my career is almost 100 percent ­physical metallurgy. I learned working at the mill that I like physical metallurgy so much better. I like to be able to touch the metals I’m working with; with chemical ­metallurgy, it’s a little too hot—you can observe, but there’s not a lot of touching.

My undergraduate work was in physical metallurgy and I got really curious about how to get steel to be steel. Then I did my PhD work in chemical metallurgy. I like to look at everything—from when it’s in the ground until you melt it—but ultimately I directed my career to physical metallurgy.

RML: The steel industry certainly has changed a lot since you were at Ellwood Quality Steels.

DR. EASTEP: Yes, it has.

RML: My wife Carolyn grew up in Bethlehem, ­Pennsylvania, and she’s a painter. A few years ago, when she learned that Bethlehem Steel was going out of business, she became very nostalgic. She had lived within blocks of the blast furnaces, with the noise and odors and everything. And everybody in her family worked in the steel mills in one place or another. She arranged to do some paintings at Bethlehem Steel and got an escorted tour of the steel mill before they started dismantling it. Her paintings show how the industry has changed. One of my favorites is of a blast furnace with weeds growing around it and no smoke belching from the stacks. It’s a testimonial to the silence of that part of the industry. You’ve seen both ends of that spectrum.

DR. EASTEP: Yes. When I was still living in ­Pittsburgh, US Steel at their Monroeville facility, which is the ­second oldest integrated steel mill in the country (the oldest being at Edgar Thomson Steel Works in ­Braddock, PA), actually had a blast furnace from the late 1800s that was still in use.

RML: And the Bethlehem Steel plant was over 100 years old when they decided to go out of business and retire everything.

CAMERON FLETCHER (CHF): Lisa, I gather you now live in Rhode Island. How do you like it?

DR. EASTEP: I love Rhode Island. It’s a supersmall state and we live in a supersmall town on an island in Narragansett Bay. It’s the complete opposite of when I was living in the Bay Area in California.

CHF: Yes indeed. And I understand that’s where you got started in roller derby.

RML: You must be athletic by nature?

DR. EASTEP: Yes, I’ve always been very active. “­Athletic” sounds like I have actual talent; let’s just say I’m very active. I don’t know that I was ever at the top of any skill level. I like hiking, and when I was in grad school, I used to run. I’ve always been extremely active.

CHF: How did you get into roller derby?

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DR. EASTEP: We moved to Rhode Island and, as any good New Englander, we decided to get my son into ice skating because that’s what you do in New ­England: you learn how to ice skate. He really seemed to enjoy it. And then one day he decided he didn’t want to do it anymore. My husband and I thought, ‘Maybe there’s something about the ice he doesn’t like. Let’s see if he would like roller skating.’ We took him to the local roller rink and he seemed to enjoy himself. That rink was also where the Providence Roller Derby used to practice.

We would go to the roller rink every weekend and there was one corner where the roller derby players hung out. My son was fascinated with them. I would watch them and I’d be a conceited, arrogant individual thinking ‘I can do that.’ After a couple of years of telling myself that, I decided, ‘All right, let’s see if I can do that,’ so I joined up.

I’d been roller skating my whole life, but not in a way that I hit people, which is a whole different new skill set. That’s how I got involved. It took me about 10 minutes to fall in love with the sport.

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CHF: What made you tell yourself ‘I can do that’? You said you’d been roller skating your whole life, which is in itself a little unusual, but there was apparently something about the physical—I’ll call it “engagement” of the sport that appealed to you.

DR. EASTEP: I grew up in Southern California in the late ’70s, early ’80s, so roller skating was a rite of passage. Everybody did it. I think another aspect of this was a midlife crisis. It was my 40th birthday when my husband got me a pair of derby skates.

I grew up watching roller derby on TV. There was a Charlie’s Angels episode, and I remember watching a Raquel Welch movie, Kansas City Bomber. So I had these Hollywood visions of it, and a whole lot of midlife crisis thrown in, that made me decide that I could do this.

The other aspect is that I was looking for opportunities to meet people. I work for a small company in a male-dominated field, so there’s not a lot of opportunities to engage and get to know other women. My husband is a stay-at-home parent, so he handles PTA meetings and stuff like that. So this was a way for me to meet new people.

CHF: That makes sense. You mentioned derby skates. What’s different about those?

DR. EASTEP: If you watch figure skating, you’ll see that there’s about a 1-inch heel at the back and skaters spend a lot of time up on the balls of their feet. Derby skates don’t have that heel and you spend a lot more time in roller derby on your heels because that’s usually where you get a lot of your power and stopping capability. And the boots don’t come up your ankle so they don’t impair your movement. We call them low-ride boots, with no heel. That’s what’s considered a roller derby skate. And of course there are four wheels on it, it’s called quad wheel. The boot sits on a plate and the wheels screw into the plate. There’s a lot of engineering that goes into the plate for it to be able to withstand the type of stresses in loading and still be lightweight.

RML: I was going to ask whether your experience as a metallurgist entered at all into your venture as a roller derby skater. Sounds like it has because the materials and construction are part of the equation.

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DR. EASTEP: Absolutely. Not so much the metallurgy, but the materials science. The way the materials of the wheel interface with the surface you’re skating on affects your stability and your ability to stop, for example.

We (Providence Roller Derby) don’t have a “home” so we don’t have a specific facility where we practice or compete. We compete on a bunch of different surfaces.

When I first joined the league, one of the places where we were skating is a high school gymnasium, which has a basketball floor with polyurethane coating that’s designed for feet to not skid—which is really good for basketball and volleyball and really bad for your elbow pads and knee pads: When you fall, your elbow pads and knee pads stick to the floor and instead of sliding, which helps dissipate the movement, you end up going heels over head.

When I first started doing this, I thought, ‘there has to be some type of coating or material that we could use.’ I did experiments with a bunch of different spray-on coatings and finally figured out that Teflon tape—the kind of tape that you would use on the interior of air ducts—allows really good sliding. When you put Teflon tape over the surfaces of your knee pads and elbow pads, it helps a tremendous amount. It’s not perfect, but it helps.

CHF: I bet your teammates appreciated that.

DR. EASTEP: They did actually. They didn’t believe me at first. ‘What is this rookie trying to tell us about how to do what we’re supposed to do?’ They found out that some of the other leagues around the world were doing something quite similar. So it wasn’t like it was my unique idea, but it validated my experiments. My teammates bought into my results a lot faster when they found out some of the other leagues were doing the exact same thing.

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RML: It sounds like you also earned your derby name, Dr. Steelgood. How did your name come about?

DR. EASTEP: Everybody has a cool name. I have a PhD in steel making, and I like the Mötley Crüe song “Dr. Feelgood” (as long as you don’t listen to the lyrics too closely because it’s about a drug dealer; I went back and listened to the lyrics after I chose my name and cringed). And then my roller derby number is the atomic mass of iron—it’s 55.85.

CHF: That is so fabulously nerdy. You are really making the most of it. Well done.

DR. EASTEP: Thank you very much.

RML: How do you balance your workload and your skating? How much time practicing and competing is typical?

DR. EASTEP: A lot. There are two aspects to the league. I liken it to Little League baseball. We have what we call a home season or home teams, which is the equivalent of recreational, and we have travel teams, like the Little League all-star teams that travel. The travel team is the competitive team, traveling around the country and up to Canada sometimes. I’m on both teams, travel and home.

The travel team is very, very competitive. We all belong to the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA), which has about 400 leagues worldwide. Providence Roller Derby was the first league to form in New England; we just celebrated our 15th anniversary. We’re currently ranked about 80 out of 400—not the top, but very decently placed.

Practice schedule for the travel team is 6 hours a week. I have two 2-hour practices and a 2-hour scrimmage every week for the travel team plus another 2-hour practice with the rest of the league. We usually play in two or three tournaments a year and then some individual games. A tournament is usually a 2- to 3-day event. Depending on how it’s set up, we can play between two and maybe five bouts over a weekend. A lot of these tournaments are set up similarly to the NCAA basketball tournaments. You go in and as you keep winning, you play more. Last summer we were up in Canada and I think we played five games over 2 days.

RML: A game is two 30-minute periods, is that right?

DR. EASTEP: Correct. Two 30-minute periods and then a 15-minute half-time usually.

RML: I’m looking at a list of the Providence Roller Derby team names. Which team are you on?

DR. EASTEP: I’m on the Killah Bees and the ­Sakonnet River Roller Rats.

RML: I notice that you’ve been an all-star at least twice, maybe more, and on the traveling team. You have to be a pretty competitive skater.

DR. EASTEP: I’m an incredibly competitive person. But I would say that among the competitive skaters in the league, I’m at the lower end of average. It takes me a little longer than some of the young whippersnappers to pick up some of the skills. I’m in my fourth season on the travel team right now, and I’m in the middle as far as skill level is concerned.

CHF: You mentioned “young whippersnappers.” What’s the age range of derby skaters? It sounds pretty taxing physically. What are the ages of the oldest competitors?

DR. EASTEP: In our league, ages range from 18 to mid-50s; the median age is probably early 30s. I’ll be 49 in November and I’m one of the oldest skaters. There are two skaters who are older than I am; one of them, who just retired after I think 10 years, is in her mid-50s. A skater I know in Connecticut is 62 and she’s still going. There’s also a junior roller derby league for ages 8 to 17.

RML: I’m looking at some of the other team names. The Rhode Island Riveters, the Mob Squad, the Old Money Honeys. There seems to be a lot of spirit in the choice of names for both the players and the teams. Is that part of the sport and its history?

DR. EASTEP: It’s the culture and history. There are a couple different aspects. There’s the pun involved and there’s also sort of a 1950s pinup girl vibe. You also want to encompass the flavor, if you will, of your region. That’s why we’re the Rhode Island Riveters, acknowledging Rhode Island and its military history. The Killah Bees is based on the Navy Seabees; our logo is the same as the Construction Battalion. The Old Money ­Honeys are based in Newport. The Federal Hill Mob Squad plays to the fact that Providence is associated with organized crime and has a huge Italian community. Organized crime was active in Providence through the ’80s and ’90s.

In New York City, Gotham City is the name of their roller derby league. And there are the Brooklyn ­Bombshells and Wall Street Traitors. So the different locations try to express a flavor of their region.

CHF: People are clearly clever about this. I’m guessing that that indicates a general sense of humor, which would also lend itself to some great camaraderie with your teammates.

DR. EASTEP: Absolutely. It’s amazing. It’s one of the things I really love about this sport. We’re all unbelievably competitive individuals—you don’t do this unless you have that really competitive streak. But it’s not unheard of to be at a tournament and the word to go out among all the teams that ‘someone broke the plate on their skate, does anybody have a plate we can use?’ People share resources, supplies, whatever they can with teams that they’re going to compete against in a few minutes. You can see it from the most competitive games down to the most recreational fun games where, between jams, there’s usually music playing and you’ll see different teams dancing with each other.

The coolest part is that, in every bout that we play, tournament or otherwise, each team selects a valuable player from the team they just played. Usually it’s most valuable blocker and most valuable jammer—basically offense and defense. So if our team played your team we would select who we thought was the best blocker and the best jammer on your team and you would select the best blocker and jammer on our team and then we would award each other something. So it’s always about a certain amount of camaraderie even though we’re going to beat the crud out of each other.

CHF: That’s a really nice tradition. I want to ask, what are the rollers made of? I’m supposing they’re a heavy-duty plastic type of material.

DR. EASTEP: You’re right. It’s polyurethane. The wheels are specially designed to have certain hard­nesses. Remember I mentioned that we skate on different surfaces; the hardness of your wheels is going to dictate how you interface or work with the surface you’re skating on.

A lot of places where we skate are decommissioned hockey rinks, so we skate on concrete a lot. As I mentioned, we also skate in gym­nasiums, which have a ­polyurethane-coated floor. There’s sometimes a sports court floor, more like a plastic tiling. Sometimes we skate outdoors on asphalt; not a favorite of mine, but that’s what you do. And a roller rink has a wooden floor with some type of a wax or polyurethane coating on it. So we skate on lots of different surfaces.

CHF: And you have different skates for different surfaces?

DR. EASTEP: Different wheels if you can afford it—wheels can run about $100 to $200 for a set. I have a couple of teammates who can only afford one set; you make do with what you can. I have three different sets of wheels that I change out on my skates depending on where I’m skating.

CHF: You screw them on to the skate boots?

DR. EASTEP: Yes. Your skate boot, which is almost always leather (or vegan leather if you’re a vegan), is bolted or screwed onto a metal or carbon fiber plate, which has axles attached to it, and the wheels are bolted to the axle.

RML: All of the skating surfaces are flat, is that correct?

DR. EASTEP: Yes. Well, generally flat, because sometimes we skate in parking lots, where flat can take on a whole new meaning. It might be a little wavy. But generally it doesn’t have any kind of grade.

RML: I asked because I remember seeing some discussion about Olympic roller sports. I often saw banked tracks. For roller derby what’s the significance of the transition from banked tracks to flat tracks?

DR. EASTEP: The big significance is cost. Roller derby originated in the 1930s during the Depression era when people were looking for things to do outside. Originally, it was about who could skate the longest, going around and around in circles. Then it evolved to include preventing other people from skating faster than you. That’s when all the contact got involved.

It was originally designed on banked tracks because they’re good for high speeds. Banked tracks became less popular during the resurgence in the early 2000s because they take a capital investment and it was sort of an underground garage type of sport. For banked tracks you have to have the space, you have to build the track, you have to maintain it. At the same time roller rinks were starting to go out of business. What spaces were easily available? Parking lots, decommissioned ice ­skating rinks, gymnasiums,….

CHF: Are there different team positions?

DR. EASTEP: There are three general positions on a team. On the track at any one time there are five players for each team competing against each other in what’s called a jam. I use football as an analogy because I really like football and I know it well. You have five people from each team on the track at any time for a jam that can last up to 2 minutes. In football you have an offensive and a defensive line for different downs. The five players include four people called blockers and one person called a jammer. The jammer’s job is to skate past people and the blockers’ job, obviously, is to prevent the jammer from the opposing team from skating past.

One of your blockers has a position called a pivot: if the jammer gets really tired or gets into some trouble, they can do what we call “pass the hat” or “pass the star,” which is to remove a hat on top of her helmet and hand it off to the person (the pivot). Then the pivot is the jammer. Those are the three “positions” on a roller derby track.

CHF: What’s the goal of each jam?

DR. EASTEP: It is quite literally to pass people. The jammer scores one point for every player they pass on the opposite team. There are four blockers on at any one time.

RML: Your blockers would help to open the path for you to do that. That’s the strategy.

DR. EASTEP: Correct. The blocker is both offense and defense simultaneously, which can get a little insane. We’re there to keep the opponent’s jammer from getting through—basically, again using football as an analogy, acting as the defensive lineman. And we’re trying to open holes in the other team’s line so that my jammer can get through, acting as an offensive lineman.

RML: Are you a jammer, a blocker, or a pivot or all three at different times?

DR. EASTEP: In practice, I’m all three. On the track, I’m primarily a blocker—I just don’t have the explosive speed for jammers. But in practice I’ll jam like crazy.

It’s like running backs. There are two types of running backs. You have the juking kind, like Barry Sanders, who can spin and move really fast from side to side, and then you have the Jerome Bettis kind who just go and keep going and they’re going to hit you and it’s going to hurt. I’m more the Jerome Bettis type of jammer, which is exhausting. I don’t have a lot of juking ability, I can’t easily shift directions. I basically just skate really fast. If I’m skating fast enough, I will break through your walls. If I’m not, I’m going to be pushing up against your wall for a really long time. I’m primarily a blocker.

RML: I had a very good friend who sailed dragons, which are not Olympic boats, but he was very close to getting on an Olympic team at one point. Have you heard any discussion about roller derby being an ­Olympic-caliber sport?

DR. EASTEP: Yes. There is a push for a category with multiple roller sports. In the roller derby community, we obviously would love for it to become an Olympic sport—if we survive the covid outbreak. All our leagues are taking massive financial hits right now and I suspect that a lot of leagues will fold because they’re not financially sustainable. Still, there’s talk about it. We do have a World Cup every 4 years, and our own championships like other professional leagues. It’s perfect for an ­Olympic sport.

I suspect a big challenge is that it’s the only women-centric contact sport. What I mean is when you think of other sports, there’s basketball and women’s basketball, soccer and women’s soccer. It’s the reverse with roller derby: you have roller derby and men’s roller derby. I think there’s still a lot of difficulty from the mainstream perspective in accepting a female-centric contact sport, although I think that’s changing.

RML: It just seems to bring so much camaraderie and skill, and there’s a certain joy. I watched a couple of videos and it looks like a natural for an Olympic sport.

DR. EASTEP: I agree completely. But it’s not well enough known. We don’t have grassroots support pushing for it. Also, if you think about it, in a business like everything else, networks want something that people are interested in and want to watch. We’re still pretty small from that perspective.

And yet junior roller derby is taking off now because of the camaraderie and the body-positive influences. There is no ideal body type for this sport. None. I skate against people who are 5 feet tall, weigh 100 pounds, and are very good; they’re jammers and can squeeze through. And I have teammates who are 6 feet tall and weigh 250 to 300 pounds, and there’s a benefit to that. There are advantages to all body types. It’s great.

Starting with the junior leagues, there’s the body-positive aspect to it, encouraging kids to be active and learn how to be healthy. You’re basically growing both a new crop of skaters and a new audience. So with junior roller derby we’re trying to spread the word to get more people interested so that we can get more visibility, which is one of the ways you make your way up to the Olympics.

CHF: That all sounds very encouraging. Thinking about the Olympics, how popular is roller derby in other parts of the world. You mentioned Canada. What other countries?

DR. EASTEP: We’re in countries all around the world. If I’m remembering my statistics correctly, either New Zealand or Australia has the highest number of leagues per capita. But it’s really popular everywhere—­Africa, Central America, Argentina and Brazil, Britain, Europe has quite a few, I think there are even leagues in the Middle East. There’s also a Team Indigenous in the United States, with Polynesians and Native Americans. So we’re everywhere and we’re growing. There are more than 400 leagues worldwide.

CHF: Lisa, you mentioned earlier that you used your engineering background a little in the application of the tape to prevent skidding. How else does your engineering background inform your approach to roller derby?

DR. EASTEP: That’s a great question. We’re trying to make our bodies do some unique and probably not very good things, and I use my engineering to figure out how to do what I want to do. For example, if I want to skate really fast around a corner that I might skid on, I think about not wanting to go over the static friction coefficient to the floor. I don’t want to go into dynamic friction, I want to stay in static friction. So what can I do? Or if I want to be able to stop my body with my feet in certain positions, where do I need to put the ­pressure—on the inside edges of my skates, the ball of my foot, the heel?

Basically, I do a lot of statics and dynamics even though I’m a metallurgist and my mechanical engineering friends would laugh at how basic my approach is in looking at these things. But I do try to look down and think, from a mechanical standpoint, where is the high stress point? How do I build a structure with my body that’s going to be structurally sound so that when somebody flies at my back at a high rate of energy, I can dissipate their momentum? I do think that way when I’m trying to learn new skills. I break everything down from an engineering and energy and momentum perspective and then try to figure out how to make my body work.

CHF: That’s terrific. Thanks for explaining that.

DR. EASTEP: And because I’m a recruitment coach, I train the new recruits. I’ll say something like, “Try this with your body” and they look at me and I say “Trust me. Do you want me to draw you a free body diagram?”

One other thing I’ll share about my engineering perspective. As you can imagine there are a lot of injuries in this sport. I know several people who have had ­broken bones, and sometimes there’s hardware—stabilizers and screws. I ask people if I can have their hardware screws, especially if it’s cracked or broken, I want to look at it. With one of my friends, a titanium screw broke, and I have it in the lab.

[Laughter]

CHF: That’s an unusual engineer’s approach to the sport.

RML: You’re really earning your doctoral title every day.

CHF: Lisa, we’ve come to the end of our hour. Thank you so much.

RML: This has been a lot of fun. I appreciate you talking with us today.

DR. EASTEP: It was. Thank you so much for asking.

About the Author:Lisa Eastep is a Metallurgist and Roller Derby Competitor