I grew up in Montoursville, a small town of about 6,000 residents in the Susquehanna Valley of central Pennsylvania, and graduated high school in 2006. I attended The Pennsylvania State University (Penn State) for undergraduate studies, graduating in 2010 with a B.S. in Materials Science and Engineering and a minor in Chemistry. During college, I was active in polymer research both at Penn State, spending two years in Prof. Mike Hickner’s lab studying ionomeric membranes for fuel cells, and at other institutions, spending a summer each at Virginia Tech, with Prof. Robert Moore, and at MIT, with Prof. Krystyn Van Vliet. For my academic achievements, I was named Engineering Honors Graduate of the College of Earth & Mineral Sciences, an award given to the most accomplished graduating senior in an engineering discipline in the college.
When I was selecting graduate schools, I received tempting offers from many highly regarded institutions, but ultimately chose PSE at UMass due to its open and cooperative learning environment, its focus on polymeric materials, and the excellence of its faculty. The breadth of focus of PSE’s faculty within the field of soft materials substantially benefits students by enabling a great deal of flexibility in the topic of their degrees. This breadth also deepens the technical toolbox of the students – being around so many different types of projects truly promotes an environment in which “learning by osmosis” is a constant process. Only after I began my job in product development at 3M did I realize how important this was. Truth can be found in the adage that, after graduation, a student will never work in their exact field of graduate study, and so the learning environment must include more than just preparing for a dissertation if the student will be impactful after school. PSE at UMass truly excels in creating such an environment.
The reason for this excellence is the structure of the department and the quality of its people – faculty, post-docs, students, staff. PSE maintains several world-class instrumentation facilities that are housed solely within the Conte National Center for Polymer Research. This concentration of resources facilitates learning about different experimental/measurement techniques and attracts researchers from other departments, further enhancing the cross-pollination of ideas. PSE clearly recognizes the importance of an incoming student’s first year of study, and so provided us a solid organizational foundation in this critical time. Unlike some departments, students are accepted into UMass PSE without a formalized advisor assignment, and thus without a source of financial support. UMass PSE graciously provides stipends for all students as they search for an advisor, and the advisor selection process itself provides a great introduction to the research activities happening in the department. Furthermore, funding is not dependent on teaching duties, such as teaching assistantships, because the department has no undergraduate program.
But what really made UMass PSE great for me was the quality of the people and the strength of the relationships I formed with them, a direct result of the department’s open culture. The first two semesters of an incoming student’s time at UMass PSE consists primarily of a series of polymer-focused courses taken together with the other first-year students, often with a great deal of collaboration. This intensive time working together creates strong relationships amongst members of each class that enable innovative future research and can form the backbone of a student’s network during graduate school and beyond. Research groups internally engage in a constant and enthusiastic exchange of concepts and learnings – competition between students that exists in other institutions is largely absent at UMass PSE, and many opportunities exist for collaborating with other research groups. This culture of openness seems to tie together current students and alumni. Since PSE graduates have ascended the ranks at many leading US-based companies, inclusion in PSE’s culture provides excellent opportunities for students’ futures. Indeed, I attribute my good fortune of moving to a product development position at 3M after graduating in December 2015 to being a product of UMass PSE.