Happy Valley is home to one of the largest Materials Research Institutions in the United States, world renowned for contributing breakthrough research to government and industry. It’s also home to global materials companies that are creating life-changing solutions in transportation, medicine and defense. So why are Happy Valley companies suffering from ‘brain drain’ and a lack of candidates for positions, and why are graduates leaving Happy Valley when opportunities for advancement and innovation are available here?
The location makes it possible to enjoy a quiet town life but also engage with busier cities, as it is so close to many big cities along the east coast.
“This place is phenomenal,” says Kate Alward, Director of Human Resources and Training for Ben Franklin Technology Partners’ Transformations Business Services Network. A Penn State grad, she returned to the area after working in the Washington, D.C. area for years. Today, she consults with 55 local companies on their HR needs, and says that the career opportunities in Happy Valley’s tech space combined with the livability are unbeatable. “If people understand what they have here, they’d never leave,” she says.
She says that both established top tier companies as well as Penn State-alum-fueled startups are making headlines … and they are looking for Penn State talent to join their team. Instead of leaving the college town that everyone loved, it can become home base — with outdoor fun, events, great schools, and livability to spare.
We recently talked with two Penn State alumni who are now at Morgan Advanced Materials, a UK-based global leader in materials science that has its Carbon Science Centre of Excellence (CoE) located in Innovation Park. They say that their time at Penn State gave them the foundation for success and Happy Valley provides them livability, an outdoor playground, and a great place to raise a family.
“If people understood what they have here, they’d never leave.”
Morgan’s lead material scientist, Matt Krohn says Penn State helped to teach him the strategy of materials innovation and the importance of delighting customers.
Krohn is both Lead at the Carbon Center of Excellence and Director of New Product Development for Morgan’s Electrical Carbon business. He says that Morgan focuses on delighting their customers by applying world class material solutions. “We focus on talking with our customers,” he says. “Our goal is to understand their needs so that we are able to identify or develop the right solution to exceed their material requirements and meet their sustainability needs.”
Morgan’s purpose is to develop materials that make the world more sustainable and improve the quality of life. Their carbon materials can be found in both the clean energy and clean transportation markets. “We are working on components that transfer charge at high speeds with lower wear, allowing for example, trains to operate more efficiently,” Krohn commented. “We’re always looking for opportunities where carbon can have a distinct advantage in an application, improving performance of the overall system.”
Krohn chose Penn State after interning at Cummins Engine Company in Indiana. “My manager was a Penn State grad and spoke very highly of the materials program.” I was really interested in ceramic materials and Penn State is one of the best in the country for research and practical application of this material.
“There is a great materials program that focuses on fundamentals, which prepared me for opportunities in different areas of material science. My education at Penn State has allowed me to move from being an individual contributor focused in R&D, to supporting and managing the innovation process and strategy, thereby ensuring technology is aligned with our commercial goals and delivers impactful solutions to our customers. The industrial interactions I had while working on my Ph.D at Penn State has really helped with my success — not just the technical side, but also with the commercial side.”
After a brief relocation to Pittsburgh, Krohn boomeranged back to Happy Valley, where he’s been since 2006. “It’s very livable,” he says. “The cost of living is reasonable and it’s very green and clean, with a lot of outdoor activities. It’s a great place to raise a family. The area has grown a lot in the last few years and has plenty to offer.”
“The industrial interactions I had while working on my Ph.D at Penn State has really helped with my success — not just the technical side, but also with the commercial side.”
He says that keeping materials talent in Happy Valley is all about giving professionals opportunities. “The more opportunities there are, the bigger probability of keeping students here,” he says. “This co-location of industrial R&D with a University is a very interesting model that offers many opportunities to innovate. Morgan recognizes the value of having an R&D facility co-located with Penn State.”
Materials Scientist Bonnie Yunzhi Liu says interdisciplinary collaborations equipped her for success: “In R&D, you strive to deliver as a team rather than an individual”
Liu works with Krohn at Morgan and says that their mission is to “drive innovation and materials development.” “For example, we design and develop better performing materials to help our customers to better utilize electricity, and to manage friction and wear more efficiently in pumps worldwide,” she says.
Liu says she chose Penn State because she’s always had aspirations to contribute to real world applications with hard-core scientific principles. “When I was deciding which graduate school to attend, Penn State attracted me the most because of its platform where a wide range of science and engineering majors are integrated, working together to provide scientific solutions for applications in both near and long term.”
“I was blessed with an amazing project under Materials Research Science & Engineering Centers (MRSEC). Under this project, not only did I bring some challenging new materials creation to life, more importantly, I had the opportunity to work with others in interdisciplinary collaborations where I started to embrace the different technical expertise and problem-solving approaches.”
“Morgan recognizes the value of having an R&D facility co-located with Penn State.”
She says that the interdisciplinary collaborations were especially valuable to her future R&D. career. “In R&D, you strive to deliver as a team rather than being an individual contributor. Most of the time it is more productive to connect the dots and utilize different people’s knowledge and resources, than coming up with the solution on our own.”
Liu points to another big career benefit that she gleaned: “The fantastic materials research facilities on campus, like the Materials Characterization Lab. You don’t have to be an expert on every single instrument or methodology. The facilities equip you with a toolbox and a guide in your mind, so you know where to turn when seeking technical solutions.”
She says she’s glad that her career allows her to stay in Happy Valley. “I like enjoying the nature around here, and a small town feeling with a safe environment. The location makes it possible to enjoy a quiet town life but also engage with busier cities, as it is so close to many big cities along the east coast.”
“There is a good number of industries in State College and nearby towns, like Bellefonte,” she says. “Being in a less busy area surrounding a college town helps the business community to connect better and clearer.”
Cara Aungst writes about industry, innovation and how Happy Valley ideas change the world. She can be reached with story ideas and comments at Cara@AffinityConnection.com.