Supporting Doctoral Students is a Family Tradition

Now in its 20th year, the Koerner Family Fellowship program supports PhD candidates who are particularly interested in continuing their career in academia. To honor the dedicated professor, the award is named for the late Robert M. Koerner BS ’56 MSCE ’63, H. L. Bowman Professor of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering, his late wife Paula, and their children George, Michael, and Pauline. Together, the family have accumulated four bachelor’s degrees, two master’s degrees, and a Ph.D. degree from Drexel, where collectively they have been employed and educated for over ninety years.

Student working in lab
Olivia Wilson is a member of the 2020-21 class of Koerner Fellows.

A workplace accident led to a career change for Robert Koerner. After earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Drexel, he began a career in civil engineering, contributing to major construction projects like the Walt Whitman Bridge and the Cross Bronx Expressway. After surviving the accident, Paula convinced Robert to explore his love of teaching as an alternate career. He earned his PhD at Duke University and returned to Drexel as an associate professor, where he studied non-destructive testing and was an early researcher in the practice of using fabrics and polymers in construction materials. The research would launch the field of geosynthetics, and Koerner would become one of the world’s foremost experts. He founded the Geosynthetic Research Institute at Drexel and incorporated the highly-regarded Geosynthetic Institute (GSI) in 1991, opening new opportunities for organizations and researchers to collaborate and innovate in the field.

Michael Koerner ’82, Robert’s son and principal officer of the Koerner Family Foundation, says that Robert’s years in academia gave him ample opportunity to see the level of contributions that PhD candidates bring to research.

“My father believed that academic graduate research is a crown jewel of American innovation,” he says. “PhD engineers become leaders of next generation technology that drives America’s future progress.  Our fellowship program looks to support and amplify that kind of work.”

Olivia Wilson, a materials science PhD candidate and member of the Koerner Fellows 2020-21 class, says that the support provided by the Koerner family is more than just financial.

“Mike made a point to make a personal connection with each and every one of us who earned a fellowship,” she says. “He’s there to offer support in finding a job, opening doors to industry connections, and more.”

“PhD engineers become leaders of next generation technology that drives America’s future progress.  Our fellowship program looks to support and amplify that kind of work.”
Michael Koerner

The Koerner family continues to produce engineers. Bob & Paula’s three children along with five of six grandchildren are engineers or are now studying engineering. With so much engineering experience in the family, they value an engineer’s experience working in industry, but Michael says that the family hopes to draw more students into graduate-level work through fellowship grants.

“There’s certainly a sacrifice to continuing on to doctoral research, especially when you could otherwise be earning money in the industry,” he says. “But if we can lower the financial barrier, we hope to encourage more people to pursue PhDs.”

Michael also said that the family’s partnership with Drexel continues to be rewarding. “Drexel really hits a nice, sweet spot for us, not only for our family connection, but because there is substantial engineering enterprise activity going on and a good mix of both American-educated and international students bringing a variety of approaches to engineering problems,” he says. “It’s very gratifying for us because there’s a mutual benefit where we support Drexel’s vision and the students who become fellows support ours.”

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