Each June after diplomas are conferred, Drexel graduates venture forth into the world to make their mark. Among those recently minted alumni, a select group of PhD graduates have been deemed the “most likely to enhance Drexel’s reputation” in their future careers and endeavors. While the award has changed somewhat over time, since 2006, 10 Drexel Materials graduates have received the University level award, with an additional student receiving the inaugural College-level award in 2017. It got us to wondering, have these alumni indeed been helping to enhance Drexel’s reputation since graduation? We caught up with seven Drexel Materials recipients of the Outstanding Promise Award to find out.
Combining technical and non-technical skills
The first student at Drexel to complete a PhD and MBA simultaneously and an inaugural member of Drexel’s 40 Under 40, Dr. Ranjan Dash ’06, set his sights on a career to fuse his technical and business backgrounds. Currently a Senior Specialist, Technology & Acquisition at SABIC, a chemical company, Ranjan works for SABIC Specialties’ strategic business unit, identifying, accessing, and acquiring technologies, startups and businesses that SABIC can license-in, or acquire or create alliances to grow its business. He credits the strong educational foundation he received in the Drexel Materials PhD program combined with the non-technical skills he acquired while pursuing his PhD, such as multitasking, analytical skills, critical thinking, and persuasion, to success in his work life today. “My PhD work at Drexel has increased my ability to multitask across different levels of abstraction and specificity,” says Ranjan. “Since graduation, I have worked on projects in several different industries, including energy storage, water treatment, chromatography, and healthcare, and I have found that my experience at Drexel has prepared me well.”
Flexibility in the workplace
As Ranjan alluded to, learning to be nimble and honing the skills to encourage flexibility in roles and knowledge acquisition have served a number of these promising alums well in their careers. Dr. Nina (Lane) Crum ’13, a Software Engineering Manager at Intel Corporation, found herself learning software development at a rapid rate when she joined a high-performance software development team as part of a rotational engineering program she began at Intel just after graduation. While open to branching out into new areas, gaining significant software expertise and having the opportunity to lead a team early in her career has been a surprising and exciting experience for Nina. “I am most proud of joining such a high-performance software development team on the cutting edge of physical design technology, excelling in this group and eventually becoming the manager, leading projects and engagements with partner business groups.” Nina is also bringing awareness to gender-based bias in a project that has culminated in several workshop presentations. The work specifically focuses on challenges that women face in technology and explores solutions for all genders to improve workplace dynamics. For her professional success and commitment to diversity in her field, Nina was named one of Drexel’s 40 under 40 for 2018.
Working across disciplines is a theme that has come up for several of our Outstanding Promise alums. Dr. Jessica Schiffman ’09 leads an interdisciplinary and imaginative research team that uses “green” materials science and engineering to address the grand challenges that humanity faces in human health as associate professor of chemical engineering at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. By engineering “slippery” polymer materials to resist microbial contamination, Jessica and her research team can decrease the occurrence of hospital-acquired infections and improve people’s access to clean water. These are just two of the scientific queries her team seeks to solve using materials science and microbiology. Jessica credits Drexel Materials for imbuing her with the breadth of knowledge, resources, and a supportive environment that enabled her to establish her foundation as an educator, scientific researcher, and mentor. “I use many of the same scientific elements (creative thinking, scientific freedom, time management), as well as departmental culture elements (nimble and enabling environment) I experienced at Drexel to be successful in my career,” states Jessica.
Fellow faculty member Dr. Stephen Niezgoda ’10 greatly treasures his time at Drexel both as an undergraduate and doctoral student. The emphasis on the fundamentals of materials science and engineering in the Drexel Materials curriculum has provided him with a toolkit to solve materials problems as assistant professor in the Departments of Materials Science and Engineering and Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at The Ohio State University. He particularly enjoys his role as a mentor to his students and post-doc. “Watching green students who have never done any programming or haven’t taken their advanced mathematics classes yet come into your lab and somehow develop into productive researchers is an amazing experience,” shares Stephen.
Mentoring the next generation of innovators
Mentorship is a theme that resonates with Dr. Davide Mattia ’08, a 2016 Drexel 40 Under 40 recipient. Davide is Professor of Chemical Engineering and Associate Dean of Research on the Faculty of Engineering and Design at the University of Bath in the UK. In his dual roles as a faculty member and associate dean, Davide mentors both students in the lab as well as faculty members, helping to maximize their potential. “I see my role as enabling members of my research group to flourish, develop their careers and produce great scientific results,” says Davide. “In addition, I particularly enjoy mentoring early career colleagues, as they start their careers as independent researchers and navigate the challenges of academic life.” Like his fellow Outstanding Promise alums, Davide is excited by the quest for novel technologies and processes to address problems, especially the big environmental challenges affecting the planet, from the provision of clean water for all to producing renewable energy, to repairing the damage created by human-made global warming. He feels that Drexel Materials prepared him to be a researcher and an academic, directly affecting the trajectory of his career.
Also tackling new research frontiers is Dr. Boris Dyatkin ’16, a National Research Council post-doctoral associate at the Naval Research Laboratory. He engineers novel polymer-derived ceramics and composites with high hardness, thermal stability, and tunable electrical properties, integrating these materials into new designs for vehicle and personnel armor, high-speed engines, high-temperature electronics, and other systems that operate under extreme conditions. This is a new research area for Boris and he hopes to continue to be directly involved in projects that make their way into defense or energy applications and are widely used by the U.S. military or civilians. “I hope to, one day, walk into a museum, see some piece of equipment, and be able to say ‘That part there – I designed that!’” Successful research design, writing effective scientific papers, and distilling complex ideas for broad audiences are key skills Boris learned while a doctoral student in Drexel Materials. He also became aware of the value of contributing to science outside of the laboratory, as well as the importance of advocacy and outreach and applies these to his role as a member of the Clean Energy Leadership Institute (CELI), an advocacy and education organization working on different aspects of clean and renewable energy. Boris sees himself contributing to a pragmatic national science policy that encourages high-quality scientific research and development and transitions technology through basic and applied stages into successful commercialization.
Leadership and networking
As the newest member of Outstanding Promise alums, Dr. Katie Van Aken ’17 is Lead Engineer at Drexel-based start-up Dragon Spectral, which is in the process of commercializing a hyperspectral filter technology made from liquid crystals. Katie is working with companies to produce prototypes for their applications, as well as searching for new customers who may be interested in the innovative technology. Katie feels that her experiences answering tough questions and engaging in collaborations and networking while a doctoral student in Drexel Materials have helped her to get to where she is today and will help her to achieve her career goals. Additionally, her leadership experience as Vice President of academic affairs for the Graduate Student Association, as well as leadership roles in outreach and other student societies have given her the skills necessary to start her own company in the future. “My ultimate goal is to be in a position to bridge the gap between engineering and business in an industry setting,” says Katie.
Words of wisdom
These alums agree that Drexel is well known by their colleagues, and the positive reputation of Drexel Materials is celebrated in the field. Several alums have gone out of their way to provide support to Drexel students, through job and co-op positions and recommendations. All are working hard to solve critical problems and to mentor the next generation of scientists and engineers.
When asked about what advice they have for current PhD students, everyone agreed that enjoyment and a passion for what they are doing is a key element of pursuing a PhD. “Make sure you love what you are doing,” shares Stephen. “Invest time and effort in finding things that excite you and work towards them,” agrees Ranjan. “I believe that your student years, including your graduate studies, are the perfect time to explore your interests and to decide on what you want to do in life. You can view this time as your opportunity to take risks, and to try out different things. Make sure you have fun during your time at Drexel.”
Nina adds that it is important to explore the resources given to students. “My advice is to be curious and take advantage of all the learning opportunities,” says Nina. “You get to learn exponentially every day for 4+ years. What a great learning experience it can be, especially if you have the passion and curiosity to make the most of it!”
Davide reminds students that there are both highs and lows in the pursuit of a PhD. “A PhD is a unique experience, full of great elation and equally great frustration,” posits Davide. “My advice is to put everything you have in it, and take advantage of every opportunity to learn and improve yourself, without losing sight of your goal, which is to finish your PhD on time!”
Jessica encourages students to keep the big picture and the connections that are made while a student in mind. “Think globally because there is a big world that exists outside of the LeBow Engineering Center,” shares Jessica. “Long after you graduate, you may remember some of the arguments you had with peers about thermodynamics or fume-hood space, but it will be sprinkled with a fondness because you survived your finals and qualifying exams together. In other words, your classmates and labmates will be your friends and colleagues for life, so make sure to invest in their success too.” Boris agrees that networking and connections are fundamental to one’s future career. “Take time to develop and maintain professional networks,” says Boris. “They will be useful beyond your PhD.” He additionally encourages students to learn about scientific policy, which can influence future funding, research directions, and long-term career prospects.
Stephen reflects about the importance of the relationship between the student and their advisor. “Remember that your PhD is your research. Your advisor is there to mentor you, but at the end of the day, you have to produce your own work,” muses Stephen. “I think my happiest moment was when my first graduate student told me that he thought I was wrong and his way was better. No one knows your project better than you; take ownership of it and don’t be afraid to be wrong. I have tons and tons of bad ideas, but if I didn’t try them I wouldn’t find the good ones.” Davide adds a few words of wisdom to the student-advisor relationship, “An effective relationship with your supervisor can make all the difference to your PhD: It requires effort on both sides, but a bit more on yours! Understanding the constraints your supervisor is subject to can help you get what you want, support, and guidance.”
Learning the fundamentals and enhancing one’s skills are of course key elements of graduate study. “Once you decide on what you want to do in your career, you should then focus on developing ‘hands-on skills’ that are required to meet your career goals,” says Ranjan. “Hone your technical skills, writing skills, and leadership skills,” adds Boris. “They will serve you for the rest of your career. Find ways to master them both in and out of the lab. Your future career path may demand both.”
Lastly, Katie reminds students to give it their all. “My biggest advice is you get out what you put into your PhD program. If you want to end up on a certain career path, take the time to make sure you are doing the correct steps to get there, with the help of your advisor.” She also emphasizes the importance of getting out and doing things outside of the lab. “Many of the skills I learned, such as teaching materials science to kids and networking with alumni, were gained while participating in things outside the lab. There are many opportunities at Drexel to take advantage of and it is up to you to find them for yourself!