Generous gift to build chemical engineering graduate program
Since earning his bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from the University of Missouri in 1968, Robert Holtsmith said he has been blessed with a successful career, not to mention a 43-year marriage to a woman — Dorcas (Hoffman) Holtsmith A&S ’67 — he met at MU. His strong ties to MU and his gratitude to the College of Engineering made joining the Chemical Engineering Department’s Industrial Advisory Board (IAB) an easy choice.
As a board member, Holtsmith witnessed firsthand the efforts of promising new faculty members to grow the Chemical Engineering Department’s graduate program. Seeing that he could make a difference, the retired Conoco manager made a $100,000 gift, in two $50,000 installments, to the department’s graduate program to help recruit top-notch students.
“The education I received here served me well in my career and life. There’s only so much engineering you can do on your own, and the broad education that I got at MU was very good,” said Holtsmith. “When I saw the work the department was doing and the chance to help young men and women to have the same experience that I had, I thought I would return the favor.”
Matthew Bernards, an assistant professor in chemical engineering since 2008, and chair of chemical engineering’s graduate admissions and recruiting committee, said that one of the main issues in attracting top students is the stipend they are offered, and that typically the best students migrate to universities with larger offers.
“That’s where Bob stepped in. He gave us some flexibility to provide incentives to search out those gifted students,” said Bernards, explaining that enticing bright young graduate students to join the department’s research teams provides benefits in the lab, but also helps the department overall.
“Recruiting students from top-20 programs raises our reputation,” Bernards added.
Patrick Pinhero, an associate professor and director of graduate studies in chemical engineering who joined the faculty in 2007, said, “A strong graduate program benefits chemical engineering as a whole, including the undergraduates. It complements our undergraduate program by bringing greater access to cutting-edge research, and increases faculty and student visibility through publications and awards. This further enhances the department overall by improving our reputation and our rankings, which translates into more employment opportunities, higher salaries, and ultimately proud and successful alumni.”
Since joining the faculty, both Bernards and Pinhero have made a concerted effort to make outside contacts and to spread the word in chemical engineering professional and academic circles about the opportunities at MU. Holtsmith’s gift gave them added leverage.
Holtsmith emphasized the fact that his gift is not an endowment; that he wants the entire amount to be used to recruit the brightest and the best. “My gift is not about bricks and mortar and I don’t care about having my name on a plaque,” he said. “I care about the chemical engineering faculty, and I am interested in attracting good students to help them.”
The target for the Holtsmith Fellowship is a domestic student from an ABET-accredited university with a competitive GRE score and a 3.0 GPA. Fellowships add $5,000 per year to the university’s stipend, for up to five years of research.
The department’s first Holtsmith Fellow is Kevin Zurick, a graduate of Rose Hulman University who joined Bernards’ research team in the August 2009.
The St. Louis native said he applied to graduate programs that were close to home and that he took a close look at MU because he liked Bernards’ research.
“I had a couple of other offers, but the full tuition offer and the Holtsmith Fellowship helped a lot,” said Zurick, who is happy with his choice. “It’s going pretty well and Dr. Bernards is great to work with.”
“The department has always enjoyed strong support from our alumni and friends,” said Baolin Deng, C.W. LaPierre professor in civil and environmental engineering and chemical engineering chair. “The gift from Bob and Dorcas Holtsmith is another great example, and will greatly help the department while we strive to enhance our graduate and research program.”
Pinhero points out that since he arrived, the number of graduate students in the program has increased from a dozen to around 25. “There’s activity in the labs; there are people in the hallways. This is a long-term, uphill process to change the status quo, and we are winning,” he said.
“Bob’s donation opened the door,” said Bernards.