Ryan Dirkx is the vice president of research and development, Arkema Inc., and the past president (2018-20) of the Penn State MatSE External Advisory Board. In his role at Arkema, he is responsible for R&D activity in North America, management of the R&D Center in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, managing the U.S. corporate incubator businesses, and coordination with the global R&D activities of the parent company, Arkema, headquartered in Paris.
What made you become a member of the MatSE External Advisory Board (EAB)?
When someone is looking at where they want to spend their extra time, they make choices. For me, I like to pick a few things that I think can be impactful for others. I have great passion for STEM education and advocacy, so for me EAB was very consistent with that. It also gave me a way to give back to the University.
What do you enjoy doing outside of work?
I enjoy spending time with my kids, fishing, boating, hiking, basically anything outdoors as well as woodworking and repairing things.
What was your greatest influence in choosing a career in materials?
I was influenced, like many people of my generation, by the space program. The associated material challenges were always fascinating to me. Being mechanically inclined, I spent much of my childhood fixing cars and lawnmowers and the such. I always had an interest in the materials choices made in the construction and engineering of objects. The extra challenges that come with flying something in space captured my interest dramatically. At that time ceramics was the hot subject and relatively new, and a key part of the space program. In fact, I’ve had a chance to work a little in that area.
Where did you find your passion?
Undergraduate lab experience can help students find what they are motivated by and can help them decide if they want to go to graduate school or not. It was during my senior thesis in my undergraduate studies that I discovered I really liked research. It gave me the chance to independently develop ideas and solve a problem that someone else had not looked at before. I was designing my set of experiments, analyzing my results, and coming up with the next steps—and I was good at it which made it even more fun.
Why did you choose Penn State for graduate school?
I did my undergraduate studies at Alfred University, which at the time was the premier ceramics school; but it was more of a teaching university and not a research university. Penn State had nice facilities, it wasn’t too far from home, and a lot of really good research was going on. I was interested in high temperature, high performance ceramics—carbides, nitrides, borides—and some of the leading work was here at Penn State.
The fact that there was something called the Materials Research Lab caught my attention. Back in those days there were not many of those types of places. It was a unique place because they weren’t all materials scientists working there. There were people from physics, chemical engineering, and other disciplines coming together to work on materials. Today, we take for granted that kind of interdisciplinary approach, but back then, it was very unusual.
What was a highlight from your time at Penn State?
In the graduate program I was blessed with some fantastic teachers. Rustum Roy’s crystal chemistry class really confirmed my interest and fascination with materials. He had a way of presenting at such a high or lofty perspective that it confirmed that I had entered the right field. I found that I had great passion for it.
What is your advice for undergraduate students?
Be forever curious and consider yourself a life-long student. That mindset has served me well in life. Also, follow your passions. Don’t follow a career path because your friends are, or your parents think it’s important. If you don’t feel it or have passion for it, it’s probably not right. You tend to excel at things you are passionate about.
Don’t be afraid to experiment because sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know, so you have to take that jump and give it a try. Then ask the question, “Am I looking forward to getting up every day and doing this?” Your job becomes such a dominant part of your future that it’s important to like what you are doing and have a passion for it.
What advice can you offer graduate students?
I am often asked by graduate students about one of the biggest decisions they face: a career in academia or industry. Think about what motivates you.
If you are motivated to become a very deep expert in a narrow field, to be published and cited, to advance basic science and to grow your career by more publications and citations, academia will be a great source of passion for you.
If you find that your motivation is to bring new products to the market, to develop new processes and a host of things that could potentially change people’s lives, then industry is probably more likely where you will find your passion.
When you can see yourself doing both, making that decision can be tricky. But there are plenty of people who have done both over the course of their career.