Driven to advance polymer industry, alumnus gives through time, scholarships

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Michael Starsinic approached his college years with an interest in chemistry and a newfound passion for the polymer industry, borne from promotional materials sent from Penn State in the late 1970s.

Then came a trip to the University, where he was excited about the future of the industry as told through the eyes of several faculty members with previous extensive experience in the business.

Nothing’s changed on that front, according to Starsinic, who credited the University — in a town where he spent his formative years — for continuing to hire faculty with strong industry ties. What’s changed is he’s the one igniting passion for the industry that he still finds new and as full of opportunity for the next generation as it was when he first began his career in polymers.

“The faculty brought that perspective to the classroom,” Starsinic said. “They could relate a story of how it was important in industrial situations, so you got a practical perspective on things. That’s what was great about the polymer program at the time, and students are still getting that kind of perspective at the practical end of it as opposed to learning from a whiteboard or computer screen.”

Knowing that immersive experiences are important for learning, Starsinic leads efforts on that front.

At University Park, he mentors students at the Total Orientation To Earth and Mineral Sciences (TOTEMS), a class on materials design and other events. He created the Michael E. Starsinic Scholarship Fund in Polymer Science, which helps undergraduate students dedicated to advancing the polymers industry. He also is increasing his contribution to the scholarship and creating a scholarship for graduate students, with a $2 million bequest.

Starsinic worked in the industry for about 15 years before deciding that the pace of consulting — where he could advise clients toward advancing the industry — better suited his personality and passion for polymers.

At Pennsylvania College of Technology’s Plastics Innovation & Resource Center (PIRC) in Williamsport, Starsinic routinely works with students, bringing in real-world projects often gleaned from customers in his consulting business. For example, one client that makes massive 18,000 gallon containers came to him with concerns that the scarcity of crosslinkable polyethylene suppliers could lead to a supply-side monopoly. With the help of students at PIRC, Starsinic helped the client reverse engineer the product, allowing it to be created in-house.

The ubiquitous and ever-changing industry is what lured Starsinic into the field. Problem-solving is what he loves about the consulting side of things.

The field seems to attract those who buck the trend.

John Stein Jr., a rising senior majoring in materials science and engineering in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences (EMS), hopes to use his education to advance a career in the military. He’s in the U.S. Air Force ROTC and plans to serve in the U.S. Air Force after he graduates.

Stein, who is the most recent recipient of Starsinic’s scholarship, hopes to fly jets like the ones he rode in last summer during military exercises. This summer, he’ll be jumping out of airplanes. He has his sights set on becoming a pilot and then working in military research laboratories. He said the scholarship means he’ll have more time to focus on his studies and campus research.

“I had an initial interest in polymers due to their diversity in uses and disciplines. From the medical field, to electronics, to the simple food containers we use on a daily basis, polymers are everywhere,” Stein said. “The field is also still ‘up and coming,’ which leaves plenty of room for discovery and research.”

Starsinic, who was recently awarded Alumnus of the Year in the Department of Materials Sciences and Engineering, said Stein is the ideal candidate for advancing the industry. And he’s dedicated to helping students like him because it advances an industry that’s been rewarding to him.

“I want to increase the commitment and incentive for students who want to be good in the field of polymers,” Starsinic said. “I want the highest quality students being trained in polymers, developing an interest and going out and driving the industry forward.”

Starsinic earned three polymer science degrees at Penn State: a bachelor of science in 1980, a master of science in 1982, and a doctorate in 1983.

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Last Updated July 17, 2018