The most effective way to bridge basic and applied research is through interactions with industry and Schadler credits the industrial partnerships that Rensselaer’s Nanotechnology Center has established with giving her work long-term focus on applications. “You need an industry that’s committed to sticking around for awhile,” she says, “because it takes awhile to develop something of interest to them.”
The benefits go both ways of course, says Dick Siegel, the Robert W. Hunt Professor of Materials Science and Engineering and director of the NSF Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center for the Directed Assembly of Nanostructures at Rensselaer. “They’re working with one of the best groups in the world on polymer nanocomposites,” he says, adding that that’s ABB’s description. “They have tapped into expertise that’s not widely available and that suits their interests and commercial needs.”
Schadler describes her work as fundamental research, but emphasizes that she is motivated by problems that are relevant to the real world. “I think that’s probably every engineer’s [aspiration],” she says. “But I haven’t always had the opportunity to have such a close working relationship with industry as this set of projects has allowed.”
It’s just as true for engineers in training. Schadler has witnessed time and again the transformation of engineering graduate students who do industry internships. “I have found internships to be an incredibly valuable experience for both motivating the student’s fundamental work and for giving them perspective on relevant applications” she says.
Nelson describes himself as “a little unique” in that he’s made the transition between industry and academia twice. Colleagues remove the qualifying “a little” without hesitation.
“I don’t mind saying he’s probably the number one dielectrics expert in the country,” says Shep Salon, professor of electrical, computer, and systems engineering at Rensselaer. “He ran the research dielectrics program at GE and is one of the world authorities on high-voltage engineering.”
Nelson’s industry mind-set comes into play on several levels, the most obvious of which is product development. “Keith has the knowledge of the fundamentals and he’s an experimentalist at heart,” says Salon. “But, he has a lot of industry experience and a lot of industry contacts. I would expect he’s going to be able to find applications for this with no trouble.”
Nelson says his real-world experience also infuses his teaching. “I think I can help my students better because I’ve had that exposure myself.” One place in particular where his practical knowledge comes in handy is in Nelson’s undergraduate lab course. “It’s a power laboratory and I’ve had a good day when they’ve blown a few fuses,” he says. “The students then understand that these things are real and mistakes are costly.”