Powerful Partnerships Forged Across Drexel, Bolstering Research, Academics

By Natalie Kostelni

On the first day of fall classes, students from a range of disciplines — biomedical engineers along with product and fashion designers — had settled into their seats in the URBN Center for Arts and Design to face a new challenge.

The class of mostly juniors were tasked with designing a more attractive ostomy pouching system, commonly referred to as an ostomy bag, without compromising its medical function. 

Hung-Hsiang Chen teaching a course in a Drexel classroom
Hung-Hsiang Chen teaching a course in a Drexel classroom
Hung-Hsiang Chen presenting for Glaser's partner-based course with Convatec.

Mike Glaser, associate professor of product design, worked with Hung-Hsiang Chen, who is head of user experience at Convatec Group, a British multinational medical device company, to arrange the course and kick off the 10-week class.  

“This is a project I’m totally stoked about,” Glaser said to the class.

While that course was underway at the Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts & Design, students in Drexel’s School of Biomedical Engineering, Science and Health Systems were in session for a MedTech Innovation course that simultaneously being taught to students at universities in Turkey and China.

The MedTech course is part of the school’s Global Innovation Partnership Program, which brings regional and global partners into the classroom. Students hear from health care startups, venture capitalists and others about the process of taking a health care product from idea to commercialization.  

“I went through the Drexel system, and that journey shows students how to work with industry,” Jamie Mak, BS electrical engineering in ’88 and MS biomedical engineering in ‘92, who serves as managing director of the Global Innovation Partnership. “There is that practical aspect of a Drexel education; learning what it takes to bring an innovation from the lab to market, who the actors are in that ecosystem and what that process involves. This is about giving a very big picture to students of that journey of taking a concept through the process to make it a commercially viable product.”

Fundamental to the Drexel experience

Partnering with external organizations has long been an integral part of Drexel’s academic culture. From co-op to the classroom, these diverse engagements take place in varying forms in every college and department across the University, and involve a range of companies including FMC, Comcast, Lockheed Martin, SAP and Lutron, as well as smaller startups such as Fabscrap, nonprofit organizations like Longwood Gardens, and government entities.

Drexel BME students working in a lab
Drexel BME students working in a lab
Drexel BME students working in a lab.

“Powerful partnerships” also play a central role in Drexel’s 2030 Strategic Plan and were a driving force behind the creation of the Drexel Solutions Institute (DSI), which was established in the LeBow College of Business and elevated to a university-level office in 2019. DSI serves as a gateway to connect external partners with the internal talent and expertise of the University, and further enhances the student experience through expanded immersive, project-based learning.

As part of that, the Innovation Engine will serve to bolster experiential learning by bringing students, faculty and industry partners together in the classroom and research labs to tackle complex problems that relate to the real world. This approach strengthens the learning experience, provides a path for innovation and the next generation of discovery, and advances students’ career readiness by preparing them for the jobs of the future.

Yi Deng, dean of College of Computing & Informatics, has made partnering with businesses a key priority since arriving at Drexel in 2016.

“From a university point of view, by maintaining strong industry partnerships, we can better train our students and better understand what their future roles and mindset should be,” Deng said. “It helps prepare our students to have a successful career, and that makes our programs more competitive.” 

Yi Deng Headshot
Yi Deng Headshot
Yi Deng, PhD

Lauren D’Innocenzo, associate professor of organizational behavior in LeBow, has found the prevalence of external partnerships at Drexel, as well as the support of Drexel Solutions Institute in facilitating partnerships, to be a selling point when recruiting new faculty. 

D’Innocenzo serves with colleagues across the University as a Provost Solutions Fellow, which is an initiative between of the Provost’s Office and DSI that involves faculty from across the University intended to highlight Drexel’s research and teaching capabilities to partners and foster an internal culture of partnership.

The ability to understand, apply and influence what is currently going on in industry enables faculty to do cutting-edge work, she says. 

“When I share with candidates the opportunities at Drexel and my work as a Provost Solutions Fellow, it really becomes an extremely attractive benefit. You’ll see their eyes open up,” D’Innocenzo said. “DSI does a tremendous amount to cultivate those relationships and open the door to working directly with industry. To have those opportunities and to have those functions within the University to help facilitate that is a big draw.” 

Vibha Kalra, George B. Francis Chair Professor and director of the doctoral program in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, has described herself as being “passionate about industry engagement.” It has aided Kalra in landing new, external funding sources to support her research in developing the next generation of batteries and provided internships and job opportunities for graduate and undergraduate students.

There are other benefits to working with industry partners that aren’t always immediately apparent. 

Lauren D'Innocenzo, PhD (left), Robert Field, JD, MPH, PhD (center), Rose Ann DiMaria-Ghalili, PhD, RN (right)
Lauren D'Innocenzo, PhD (left), Robert Field, JD, MPH, PhD (center), Rose Ann DiMaria-Ghalili, PhD, RN (right)
Lauren D'Innocenzo, PhD (left), Robert Field, JD, MPH, PhD (center), Rose Ann DiMaria-Ghalili, PhD, RN (right)

“You are building relationships that could open the door for other opportunities in the future,” said Rose Ann DiMaria-Ghalili, professor of nursing at the College of Nursing and Health Professions as well as a Solutions Fellow. “You are also learning about real-world challenges and opportunities that can lead to innovative educational offerings for students and future research.”

Robert Field, professor of law and of health management and policy, is expanding partnerships in the Thomas R. Kline School of Law. Field is faculty director of the Law School’s new Center for Law and Transformational Technology (CLTT), which is developing joint activities, like symposia and research, with foreign universities and technology companies. 

“Working with industry partners “offers the chance to apply your expertise and skills in new and exciting ways,” said Field, who is also a Solutions Fellow. “It’s a great opportunity to develop projects that broaden horizons for your career.”

Collaborating for justice reform 

Government-related entities have also proved invaluable research partners. Jordan Hyatt, associate professor of criminology and justice studies, has engaged the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office as well as the city’s Adult Probation and Parole for some of his work. Hyatt and a colleague at the University of Oslo have been collaborating with the departments of corrections in Pennsylvania and in several Scandinavian countries on research that spawned what is called the Scandinavian Prison Project.

Jordan Hyatt and Naomi Goldstein
Jordan Hyatt and Naomi Goldstein
Jordan Hyatt, PhD, JD, (left) and Naomi Goldstein, PhD (right)

At the State Correctional Institution Chester, just outside of Philadelphia, a new housing unit was created using Scandinavian principles. It opened in May 2022 and houses 35 inmates. Data is being collected by researchers and students on how the experience affects the prisoners as well as correctional officers. 

“The goal is to understand whether American correctional officers could learn and adapt Scandinavian prison principles and whether that aligns with experiences found abroad,” Hyatt said. In general, Scandinavian prison systems stress rehabilitation and change that encourages inmates to eventually lead a better, more productive life. To support that, guards emphasize conflict resolution, and prison life emulates life on the outside, including inmates wearing their own clothes and, having access to a communal kitchen and green space, as well as working in jobs that prepare them for employment. 

Naomi Goldstein’s Juvenile Justice Research and Reform Lab is another example of how Drexel faculty are partnering with governmental agencies to improve and reform the juvenile justice system in Philadelphia. Goldstein, a professor of psychology, has long worked with the School District of Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Department of Human Services, and other agencies in Philadelphia to create and operate the Philadelphia Police School Diversion Program. That effort works with first-time offending youth who commit low-level crimes on school property and gets them into community prevention services rather than arresting them.

Nurturing partnerships and communities 

Canon Solutions America first teamed up with Drexel in 2017 to establish a program called TRIPOD at Drexel’s Writers Room, a university-community literary arts program in the College of Arts and Sciences. Through TRIPOD, students work with community members on writing stories and taking photographs that explore the West Philadelphia neighborhood and personal expression. Canon provides the University with equipment and other support for the program, which also promotes literacy and life skills in the community.

Rachel Wenrick Headshot
Rachel Wenrick Headshot
Rachel Wenrick

“Partnerships are critical to everything Writers Room does, and Canon has been a wonderful model for how we partner,” said Rachel Wenrick, director of the Writers Room and associate teaching professor of English in the College of Arts and Sciences. “When you are building something new and transformative, it takes a willingness to work really hard and you have to be patient, and while it takes longer than you think, the results are always better than not taking the time to nurture that partnership.”

The Canon partnership is not the only one Wenrick has established. There have been alliances with Mantua Civic Association, YouthBuild Philadelphia, Powelton Village Civic Association, People’s Emergency Center, Free Library of Philadelphia, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, among others. Through these various collaborations, students are provided an opportunity to see the results of their work, Wenrick said.   

“Our students are learning they don’t have to wait to effect changes to make an impact on their community,” she said. 

Building a partner-based course 

A Zoom call with representatives from Knows Eyewear
A Zoom call with a Knows informational graphic shared on the screen
A Zoom call for He's partner-based course with Knows Eyewear

Around the corner from Glaser’s class in Westphal, June He, assistant professor of product design, led another partner-based class involving Knows Eyewear, a start-up formed in 2020. Knows worked with He’s class to analyze the design of the California company’s semi-custom sunglasses and website.

For He, working on a course with an industry partner offers valuable insight, but requires thoughtful planning. “I know the content well and the collaborators are great to work with, but you have to prepare early,” she said. “You want to plan as much in advance as possible.”

One issue He addressed in organizing the course was to hammer out copyright and patent issues to ensure students are acknowledged if a design element is eventually used by the company. “Each partnership will be unique, and you will have to negotiate with each partner,” she said.   

June He and Michael Glaser
June He and Michael Glaser
June He (left) and Michael Glaser (right)

For Glaser, offering courses with partners has meant balancing his role as an educator while also serving as a project manager and juggling the varying expectations of students and industry partners.

“It takes some practice and a different mindset, but at the end of the day the value of working with an industry partner is not just the outcome, but students experiencing how a real-world process works,” Glaser said. 

The Drexel Solutions Institute is a gateway for industry leaders to connect with research-active faculty and our University community. To learn how to get involved, faculty, students and prospective industry partners are encouraged to visit the Drexel Solutions Institute online and contact DSI@drexel.edu.