Through teaching, leadership and research, Hellmann planted his legacy

David Kubarek
February 03, 2021

For as long as he can remember, John Hellmann was interested in science. He excelled in chemistry, physics and other fields but he was most drawn to fields that could be applied to solving real-world problems.

That’s when he discovered engineering, a discipline that he learned at an early age was “the informed application of science.”

That connection led Hellmann to a career spent finding discoveries that bettered our lives. He did that early on while working for Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and at Penn State — where he drove both research and teaching. In 35 years as a professor of materials science and engineering, he also mentored undergraduate and graduate students. The senior associate dean retired Feb.1.

Hellmann’s career will end where it began. At age 16, the New Jerseyan toured a few East Coast universities known for materials science before an interaction with a faculty member in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences (EMS) solidified his decision to attend Penn State.

With his mom in tow (Hellmann lacked a driver’s license), he was searching for the materials science department when he ran into C. Drew Stahl, a faculty member in petroleum and natural gas engineering, at the time. Stahl hand delivered Hellmann to the department, and after a lengthy talk with Guy Rindone, then chair of the ceramic science program, he knew before he left University Park where his undergraduate experience would begin.

From there, Hellmann earned his bachelor’s degree in ceramic science with an eye on entering the field. He entertained ideas of earning a master’s degree but a faculty member talked him into pursuing a doctorate after he did well on candidacy exams.

“I thought I bombed them, to be honest,” Hellmann said. “But then I talked with my adviser, Vladimir Stubican, and he said ‘you’re not getting a master’s. You’re getting a Ph.D.’ ”

While earning his doctorate at Penn State, Hellmann researched doped zirconia systems for solid state electrolytes, orthopedic implants and cubic zirconia gemstones.

The application of science

After graduating with his doctorate, his work earned him a spot in the ceramics development division at Sandia National Lab, which was then run by AT&T. There, he worked with a surging group of young scientists on Cold War era ceramics projects such as body and vehicle armor and nuclear and solar applications.

Hellmann said it was a place where pie-in-the-sky ideas came to life. Scientists were encouraged to dream big. But the informed application of that science was always the end goal.

“I worked in an environment that was science driven, but the application of that science was most important,” Hellmann said. “That’s what drew me to the field of materials science. You’re not just making new materials. You’re designing them with their ultimate function in mind.”

Returning to Penn State

About five years into his time at the lab, Hellmann got a call from his mentor Dick Tressler, who later headed the Department of Materials Science and Engineering. Tressler wanted Hellmann’s help in starting the Center for Advanced Materials, which would soon become a large research center that focused on the design of, and with, ceramics in high-temperature systems. In 1986, Hellmann hauled his family across the country for a fixed-term faculty position for a chance to build this new center.

The center pulled in funding from industry and various federal agencies. Two major areas of research included the development of radiant ceramic tubes for industrial heating — a technology that replaced superalloys and is commonplace today — and components for the engine of the Rockwell X-30, NASA’s National Aero-Space Plane.

“We were able to make a big impact right away,” Hellmann said. “We grew the center to something on the order of just over $3 million a year from 1986 until about 1994.”

Shift to undergraduate education

In the mid-90s, Hellmann shifted his focus to undergraduate education administration as the college followed a national trend and combined each of its four materials science disciplines to one major: materials science and engineering.

He worked to ensure that the shift didn’t mean the department would lose its specialized identity in each of the four options — ceramics, polymers, metals, and electronic and photonic devices — while he oversaw undergraduate programs in the ceramics option.

In 2001, he became the associate head for undergraduate programs while maintaining an active research wing of a dozen graduate students and a few postdoctoral scholars.

In that time, he was instrumental in securing or renewing Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) accreditation for the department’s engineering programs. Undergraduate enrollment — driven in part by advances in the energy sector — doubled under his tenure.

In 2007, Hellmann elevated to the role of associate dean of education — assisting students collegewide — until 2012.

Shift to graduate education

In 2012, Hellmann shifted to associate dean of graduate education and research for EMS, a position he held until July 2020. He said he was reluctant to take on the role with the bulk of his career in undergraduate education, but then Dean William Easterling convinced him to consider it.

Hellmann set out with three goals in mind: increasing the number of National Science Foundation Fellows (EMS had six of Penn State’s 18 fellows in 2020 and seven of 24 in 2019), improving diversity within the graduate ranks and encouraging the commercial application of research. Hellmann himself saw his Penn State research reach commercial success. His work on proppants — which are used in oil and gas extraction — led to the commercial business venture Nittany Extraction Technologies LLC, which successfully demonstrated the scale-up of laboratory experiments to manufacturing large quantities for application in the oil and gas industry.

Concerning diversity, Hellmann credits the college’s creation of the associate dean for educational equity position for improving diversity within the undergraduate and graduate ranks. He also helped create an EMS sustainability program that awards funds for faculty looking to commercialize their research.

“Those were three of the planks of my moonshot plan, while at the same time keeping the college’s research enterprise vigorous and healthy,” Hellmann said. “Because we have great faculty who write great proposals and great staff to make those proposals successful, we’re able to maintain an average research enterprise of about $65 million a year. And it’s growing now because we’ve recently added faculty who are also very, very vigorous proposal writers and researchers.”

The reward of teaching

Hellmann sees the application of his work materialize most significantly in the teaching of his students. At Penn State, he’s taught undergraduate and graduate classes and has advised more than 100 students with their research and theses.

He’s seen students go from young, bright minds to experts at national labs or companies such as Corning, Boeing and Texas Instruments. In that time, he’s passed along what he knows but also the skills and the drive it takes to not just understand the properties of materials, but also to understand the performance of the material in its intended application.

“It’s amazing to me how many of my former students have told me how some experience that we had was transformational for them, and that they really appreciated it,” Hellmann said. “And that’s really heartwarming. That’s the reward of teaching.”

Retirement

In retirement, Hellmann will still be creating. He’s picked up a few hobbies over the years and plans to dedicate a bit more time to them.

He’s been restoring several vintage Jeeps, including a 1948-CJ-2A, 1950 M-38 and a 1952 Willys M38A1. He’s done complete restorations on all but the 1952 Willys, which he plans to “leave patina” because it’s in such great shape considering its age.

His research, teaching and leadership, he said, often took precedence over his home. So he plans to put a fresh coat of paint on those 27-year-old walls, build an enclosed three-season porch and landscape the yard. He also plans to visit his grandkids as often as he can, offering them rides in his Jeeps.

He’s been harvesting tree nuts from some of his favorite spots, stratifying the seeds over the winter so that they germinate, and then transplanting them into small containers before planting the seedlings on a rural property he purchased a couple decades ago. He estimates he’s already planted about 1,000 chestnuts, persimmon, hickory and oak tree on the site.

Hellmann hopes to see the seeds he planted at Penn State continue to grow, too. 

“The greatest satisfaction of my career has come from my service commitment,” Hellmann said. “I’ve enjoyed enabling our students, staff and faculty to succeed in their own endeavors, through my teaching, mentoring and collaboration. I enjoyed seeing, and indeed sometimes jointly experiencing, the epiphanies that students experience in the classroom as well as when I’m collaborating with a colleague. I’ve enjoyed mentoring and advising my students in their research; watching them grow and mature. It’s frequently transformative and it’s why I chose academia for my career.”

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Last Updated February 05, 2021