25 Faces 25 Years: George Ullrich
By Tim Hyland
Photo by Jared Castaldi
July 12, 2017
There aren’t a lot of people who can say their career path has been directly impacted by the changing winds of geopolitics — or that their work has directly informed how the United States has responded to those changing winds.
George W. Ullrich is one of the few.
Ullrich, who earned his BS, MS and PhD in physics from Drexel, has spent the last four decades working in and around the U.S. defense industry, and has, over the course of his winding career, established himself as one of the leading experts on nuclear warfare and national defense, tackling everything from weapon development to risk analysis and disaster preparedness. He has worked for the U.S. government and for the defense contractors who work on behalf of the U.S. government, has served on boards and panels from the U.S. Strategic Command’s Strategic Advisory Group to the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board, and was awarded the Secretary of Defense Distinguished Civilian Service Medal, the department’s highest civilian award.
He has also played a key role in the evolution of the nation’s defense infrastructure.
His hard work, expertise and ability to adapt to the changing dynamics of global politics — and, by extension, the changing dynamics of the defense industry — have much to do with Ullrich’s incredible success. But Ullrich himself says there’s at least one other reason why he’s been able to enjoy such a long and successful career. That reason, he says, is the Drexel Co-op program.
“I honestly believe co-op really helped me,” Ullrich says. “I didn’t plan [my career] this way. I think people sometimes over-plan their careers. I believe in the value of trusting your instincts, and for me, that’s made for a very rich career.”
As a star student at St. Joseph’s Preparatory School in Philadelphia, Ullrich had plenty of options when it came to his college choice. But after seeing his older sister enroll at Drexel — and after seeing her get the opportunity to work alongside top researchers through her co-op — he was sold on becoming a Dragon. He enrolled as part of a unique fellowship program designed to help Drexel attract some of the top students in the Philadelphia area, and very quickly came to understand that he had made the right choice.
“My co-ops were all with General Electric, and it was an experience I’ll never forget,” Ullrich says. “I made professional connections there that continued for years down the road — these are people that I still have interactions with to this day. To be sure, it set me up for success when I graduated.”
That might actually be an understatement. Ullrich so impressed his bosses at GE that, upon his graduation, he was offered a position working on the company’s Viking Mars Lander project team. He was later diverted to what he called the “dark side” in GE’s reentry business when the Viking project was awarded to a competitor, and from there, he only enjoyed greater successes.
After a stint with the U.S. Army Mobility Equipment Research and Development Center, where he began working on military barrier systems, he would later spend more than 20 years with the Defense Nuclear Agency, where he served as Director of Shock Physics, overseeing all energy programs tied to President Ronald Reagan’s famed “Star Wars” program, and later as Deputy Director, serving under then Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney. In that role, he led efforts to transform the agency to meet the nation’s changing defense needs, transitioning from a nuclear-first organization to one focused on everything from counter-proliferation to arms control to treaty verification.
He would later return to the private sector, and now serves as Senior Vice President for Strategy Development at the international research and engineering firm Applied Research Associates, where he leverages his years of expertise to identify emerging trends and potential growth areas in national defense.
Looking back on his career, Ullrich says he’s proud of the work he’s accomplished, and somewhat amazed at all the changes he’s seen: the end of the Cold War, the rise and fall of the nuclear era, the national tragedy of 9/11 (he was working for the Pentagon at the time of the attacks).
He’s managed to thrive despite all of the change — and says that his willingness to adapt with the times has been a big factor in his successes.
His advice to his fellow alums and current Drexel students?
“When an opportunity opens up, take advantage of it,” he says. “I’ve found that, particularly in times of rapid change and turmoil, there are many opportunities created. You must take advantage of change and the opportunity that change presents — and don’t be too rigid in your career plans.”
This article originally appeared in the College of Arts and Sciences' Ask magazine feature story, "25 Faces, 25 Years." For more Ask stories, visit askmagazine.org.