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Sunday, March 7, 2021

Delaware's Ph.D. Problem?

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Michael Fleming
Michael Fleming
Wilmington resident Michael Fleming is a marketing and communications executive.

Published a day apart, two very different but sadly related bits of news appeared in our local paper of record a few weeks back.

One was Eric Ruth’s June 8 article, headlined: “Delaware posts 1.3 percent GDP growth in 2010.”  The sub-head told us everything we needed to know: “Increase ranks among the lowest in the US.”

A day earlier, tucked into the Obituaries was the notice for Mr. Samuel Smith Lord, Jr.  Mr. Lord died in May at the age of 84 and he clearly lived a productive and extraordinary life: enlisted in the Navy at 16; graduated Tufts University with a degree in chemical engineering; a Ph.D. in analytical chemistry from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1952; joined the DuPont Company and held one important research, production, operations and business management job after another – in places from New Jersey to Northern Ireland to Kentucky to of course Wilmington.

For all his education and achievements, Mr. Lord’s biography was not unusual for a generation that came to Wilmington after WWII – largely in the employ of DuPont – and made our state the “Ph.D. capital” of the world.

In the last few years, the News Journal obits have been filled with the life stories of the remarkable brain trust that flooded our little state through the 40s, 50s and 60s.

One example is Dr. Daniel Shelton St. John of Hockessin, who passed away last year at 86.  With a BS in chemistry from Berkeley and a Ph.D. in physical chemistry from the University of Wisconsin, Dr. Shelton St. John worked on the hydrogen bomb at Los Alamos, later becoming DuPont’s first Departmental Research Fellow.  Another is Robert Heckrotte who died last summer at 83.  Mr. Heckrotte attended MIT on scholarship, was drafted into the service, went back to school at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and after graduating embarked on a career with DuPont where he worked on everything from “cutting edge textile fibers production equipment” to new products like Teflon and Corfam and even Remington firearms.

Juergen Braun, also of Hockessin died last fall at 82.  After escaping a German labor camp he made his way to the US and eventually earned a doctorate in chemistry at the University of Texas.  His career at DuPont focused on pigments and he amassed more than a dozen patents.

Most famous, perhaps, of this extraordinary cohort of Delaware PhDers to have passed in the last year were two Midwesterners: former Governor Russell Peterson (Univ. of Wisconsin) and former DuPont CEO Richard Heckert (Univ. of Illinois).

These men came from all over: Maine, Milwaukee, San Diego, Germany.  And thousands more like them flooded into Delaware equipped with technical degrees from the MITs and RITs, but also Ag schools in the south and land grant colleges in the Midwest. The diversity of background and experience these men and their families brought to Delaware can hardly be estimated.  Their influx helped shape and support every cultural, educational and community institution from Seaford to Silverside Road.

But – back to the story of Delaware’s anemic GDP growth – far more importantly, this unprecedented wave of talent quite literally made the First State the Silicon Valley of that era.  Delaware was THE place for science, innovation and the powerful economic surge that resulted from their collision.

Can we ever hope to recapture that kind of magic?  To be the place the best minds want to come? Can lightning strike twice?

Certainly, some of Delaware’s smartest people are working night and day to make this happen. The Governor and his team as well as public-private partnerships including The Delaware Technology Park, First State Innovation and the Delaware Bioscience Association are all looking to spur technology-based innovation that will create jobs and attract the top technical students who now are increasingly looking not just to northern California, but to places like Texas and New Mexico – New Mexico! (the state that actually now claims to have the highest number of Ph. D.s per capita in the nation) – to sow their innovative oats.

Unfortunately, Delaware is competing to attract graduates from a pool of science and technology students that is itself shrinking. In a February 2009 speech former US Senator Ted Kaufman made it plain:

America’s economy is in crisis.  We can either drown under the weight of the problem, or we can ride the wave of opportunity that it offers…To do that, we must put science, engineering and innovation back in their rightful place in our economy

An engineering grad (and former DuPonter) himself, Senator Kaufman went on:

From what I understand … of all the undergraduate majors in the 2008 class at MIT, 11.4% took jobs in finance.  This is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, one of our leading engineering schools, sending over 10% of its graduates to Wall Street.

 The stark truth is that during the go-go years on Wall Street, America’s engineering and innovation class declined.  And it’s not just that engineers have been choosing finance over traditional engineering careers; fewer students having been choosing to study engineering, period.  Back in 1986, engineering and engineering technology students earned close to 10 percent of U.S. bachelor’s degrees. Despite attractive starting salaries, often above $50,000 a year, the percentage today is only about 5 percent. Only about 121,000 people earned degrees in engineering in 2007 – and that includes bachelors, masters, and doctoral degrees.

The halcyon era of the DuPont Colossus and the legions of engineers that helped erect it may never come this way again.  But unless we start bumping into neighbors at little league and church and the pool who mention their diplomas came from schools that end in “Tech,” even a feint echo of that glory will be hard to hear.

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State to ramp up vaccines for teachers, has given 253,535 doses of vaccine

253,535 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine had been administered as of Friday, the state said.

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