Postdocs Gain Corporate Experience

Twenty-five companies host 40 engineering fellows.

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By Marlene Cimons, National Science Foundation

Erin Surdo, 32, really wanted to conduct research after finishing her doctorate. To be sure, this is the usual path taken by most PhDs. But Surdo is an engineer, and most engineers don’t do postdoctoral fellowships. Typically, they move straight into regular industry jobs.

But Surdo, whose graduate degree is in environmental engineering, found the best of both—a research fellowship opportunity within a corporation.

This year Surdo, who is interested in “green” technology, is a researcher at BioCee, Inc., a Minneapolis-based company whose mission is to encourage the cost effective and environmentally sound production of  clean fuels, chemicals and water treatment using the bio-catalytic potential of microorganisms.

“Environmental engineers typically study remediation and treatment, but BioCee’s green chemistry/clean energy focus provides another avenue for using engineering to benefit environmental protection,” Surdo said. “While the applications of the technology BioCee is developing are vastly different, the mathematical concepts used in describing the dynamics of its technology are very similar to those I used in my dissertation research.”

Most postdoctoral research is academic or scholarly, and rarely involves a corporate setting. Last year, however, the American Society for Engineering Education, spurred by an idea from HP Labs and economic stimulus funding from the National Science Foundation, launched the Corporate Research Postdoctoral Fellowship Program, which allows 40 recent engineering PhDs to conduct research at some of the nation’s leading companies.

ASEE officials believe it may be the first postdoctoral fellowship program that enlists corporate sponsors. “Certainly, it’s not the norm,” said Dianne Donovan, an ASEE consulting associate. “We don’t know of another such program.”

Twenty-five companies are hosting 40 fellows. These include such established giants as Hewlett-Packard, Ford Motor Co., Bristol-Myers Squibb, and Alcatel-Lucent, Bell Labs, as well as numerous smaller and growing start-ups. The types of industries include communication, pharmaceuticals, heating technology, automotive, bioengineering, silicone development, power plant technologies, nanotechnology and structural engineering, among others.

The program provides each fellow with a $50,000 stipend and health insurance; each company adds $25,000 to the stipend. This means fellows receive $75,000 while spending a year outside academia, contributing to cutting-edge scientific and industrial research.

“This program offers a significant benefit to companies, providing the chance to advance critical scientific, engineering and IT research and turning that research into reality at a faster pace,” said Lueny Morell, program manager, strategy & innovation office, for HP Labs, the central research facility for Hewlett-Packard. This “enables technology transfer to businesses and/or spin-out companies, as well as more opportunities for growth,” added Morell, who proposed the program.

The National Science Foundation has provided about $2.6 million over 18 months to support the program as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

This program differs from the traditional postdoctoral fellow experience in that “the majority of post docs are government supported; they have a mission focus and are not necessarily working on new technical discoveries that actually might have profitability,” said Tim Turner, ASEE’s program director.

“If you are in chemistry or physics or biology, you have to do a postdoc, it’s really a must,” he added. “Engineers, on the other hand, usually can go out and find a job right away. The advantage for them, with this program, is we firmly believe that some of these will turn into permanent positions.”

One obvious benefit to both the company and the fellow is that “corporate labs can identify top technical talent who may be recruited for full-time positions after their industrial research fellowship position is finished,” Morell said. “This [is] particularly relevant to the contemporaneous economic situation.”