University-industry collaboration shines during Materials Spotlight

Jamie Oberdick
May 11, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State’s Materials Day, held annually by the Materials Research Institute (MRI), brings together Penn State faculty, staff and students along with materials industry attendees for two days of mutually beneficial learning and networking. To keep that spirit of collaboration going during a year still affected by the pandemic, MRI has been holding Materials Spotlight events.

Held via the virtual gathering place Gather.Town, the Materials Spotlight focuses on one theme per event, such as the most recent one held on April 7 on catalysts. Each Spotlight features presentations by industry representatives, faculty presentations on their area of research, and a half-hour of discussion and networking. 

While the events are informative, they also serve an important purpose for Penn State’s materials research community — interaction with valuable industry partners during a pandemic. 

“Traditionally we at MRI have a lot of interaction with industry,” said David Fecko, director of industry research collaborations at MRI. “In normal times, we would have an industry visitor in our facility nearly every day. They took tours, met with our faculty to talk about research, interacted with our research centers, used the facilities, and so on.”

However, like so many other in-person interactions, the pandemic put an end to them.

“It has been tough during the pandemic, because even though our labs are open for use, we do not allow visitors into the building to ensure that we do not spread COVID-19,” Fecko said. “So, our interaction with industry and companies has gone from vibrant to quite slow practically overnight.”

Gathering in Gather.Town 

To remedy this, MRI began exploring Gather.Town as a platform for virtual events during the pandemic. With a main “commons” area, breakout rooms and a large “room” with "tables," Gather.Town  simulates a conference setting. Attendees have an avatar that they can customize and move around to each virtual room via arrow controls on a computer keyboard. The presenters appear on small insert screens at the top of a user’s screen, and for networking, the people in the immediate area or in the same virtual table and room appear at the top. In this case, the user can interact in private with others nearby or in the same table or room, enabling discussion. A presenter or user can also share their screen.

“Gather.Town can make it feel like you are attending a real event,” Fecko said. “We combined our need for interaction with our industry partners with Gather.Town’s technology, and voila, we create the Materials Spotlight series.”

Gather.Town also has a low barrier to entry for new users since it is easy to use. It has worked out very well for Materials Spotlight even with a few glitches — both technology-based and human error.  

“One kind of funny moment was when I introduced our very first speaker for the very first Spotlight,” Fecko said. “My Surface Pro sits on a little shelf on my desk so that I am not looking down at the camera. Well, I must have bumped it because just after I introduced the speaker my computer fell off the shelf, disconnected from the internet, and shut down. That was one of those embarrassing virtual slip ups.”

Sparking future collaborations 

Adam Polcyn, vice president of glass research and development with Vitro Architectural Glass, attended the Jan. 27 Materials Spotlight on glass technology. For Polcyn, the event was a learning experience.  

“I enjoyed the short faculty presentations, they introduced me to research at Penn State that I had not previously been aware of,” Polcyn said. “It also helped me to see some of the synergy that exists between different research groups at Penn State.” 

This new information prompted Polcyn to follow up with researchers for more information and to see if there were any partnership opportunities.  

“I immediately followed up directly with those faculty members and students to learn more and discuss possible collaborations,” Polcyn said. “Having many of the active faculty in areas of interest to us in one place at the same time is a very efficient way for our company to explore collaborative opportunities.” 

Fecko noted that the ability to interact with industry is vital for Penn State because so much is happening at the University in materials research that makes it a leader in the field. Based on the National Science Foundation rankings of Higher Education Research and Development (HERD) research expenditures, Penn State ranked first in materials science and first in materials engineering

“Penn State is an overachiever in materials research,” Fecko said. “Many of our industry partners are well connected, but things change so fast that you really need to be paying attention to keep up. For example, we started three very large materials-related research centers this past year during the pandemic. If our industry partners didn’t know that then they may miss an opportunity to collaborate.”

The value of industry/academic research partnerships 

Keeping up with materials research is just part of the value industry finds in partnering with universities like Penn State.

“Partnering with universities allows us to stay ahead of the competition by providing access to cutting-edge research in glass technology and giving us the opportunity to help shape and develop that technology for our needs,” Polcyn said. “Penn State’s proximity to Vitro’s research and development center, its world-class capabilities, and policies that promote collaboration with industry, all contribute to our interest in partnering with Penn State in particular.”

It also has helped Penn State understand how materials research translates to the materials industry, and the impact it has on society. Fecko pointed out he learned a lot of about the impact powdered metals have on employment in rural Pennsylvania during the March 11 Materials Spotlight on powder processing of metals.

“I recall being amazed at the size of the impact that the powdered metal industry has on rural Pennsylvania,” Fecko said. “After the fracking industry, I think the powdered metal processing may be the biggest driver of blue-collar employment in the less-populated regions of the state.” 

With the end of the semester, the series came to a close for the season. The Materials Spotlight series is expected to continue next winter after the conclusion of MRI’s Materials Day conference.


Last Updated May 11, 2021