By Stephanie Kalina-Metzger
Dr. Douglas Werner, the John L. and Genevieve McCain Chair Professor of Electrical Engineering in the College of Engineering at Penn State, has recently been named as a fellow of the National Academy of Inventors. This professional distinction is the highest awarded to academic inventors and highlights those who have demonstrated a spirit of innovation in creating or facilitating outstanding inventions that have made a tangible impact on the quality of life, economic development and the welfare of society. To date, only seven other fellows from Penn State have been inducted into the prestigious NAI Fellows Program.
We recently caught up with Werner to discuss this honor, how he got his start, his advice to Penn State’s next generation of inventors and his passion for “creating something new.”
“As far back as I can remember, I always had a keen interest in tinkering and building things,” said Werner, adding that his parents took great interest in documenting his creations. “They would photograph them and call them contraptions,” he said with a chuckle. “I was never satisfied with just simply understanding how something worked; I always wanted to create something new.”
As Werner grew older, his “contraptions” became even more sophisticated.
“Starting in junior high school and all through high school, I had an electronics lab in the lower floor of our house. It was there that I would spend many hours building electronics devices, even in the wintertime, when it would become very cold in the basement,” said Werner.
“I was never satisfied with just simply understanding how something worked; I always wanted to create something new.”
He continued, “[My parents] gave me $0.50 for my school lunch and instead of using it for lunch, I would save up the money to buy electronics and mechanical parts from Radio Shack and the local hardware store.” His lean years were thankfully cut short when his parents became aware of the fact and decided to pack him a daily lunch so that he could continue his work unabated, only this time with a full stomach. By the time Werner reached high school, his passion had turned to electromagnetics, which has stayed with him all these years.
Today, Werner holds 20 patents, which cover a range of antenna technologies, which he explains are an essential component in any communications system. “With the advent of smart phones, the Internet (including the Internet of Things) and increasing channel capacity requirements for big data (e.g., 5G and 6G systems), new developments for more compact and multifunctional antennas are becoming increasingly important,” he said.
Werner has been working with Lockheed Martin since 2004 on the development of advanced antenna systems for various satellite and aircraft applications, as well as new lens technologies for improving optical and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) systems.
A major focus for Werner’s research group is on seeking ways to transform the latest theoretical developments in the fields of electromagnetics and optics into practical devices for a wide range of state-of-the-art applications. “For this reason, we frequently partner with industry, because they provide a practical focus to our fundamental research work and this collaboration often leads to joint patents with our industrial collaborators,” he said.
Gleaned from his role working with Penn State students, Werner cites one of the more common problems that would-be inventors face: taking an idea from concept to reality. “This may require either forming a startup company, or partnering with industry, which can help cover the expense of the costly patents,” he explained.
“Success can be extremely rewarding, but it usually requires a high degree of dedication and perseverance."
Still, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t encourage students to think big — while also considering the practical aspects of how to make their dreams a reality. “Success can be extremely rewarding, but it usually requires a high degree of dedication and perseverance,” he added.
Werner has made his home in Happy Valley for 40 years now and says he enjoys the area for its first-rate opportunities for interdisciplinary collaborations where much of the cutting-edge innovations in research are taking place. “Plus, Happy Valley is also just a very nice place to live and work,” he said.