By Marlese Lessing
Sean Ketchum, a 2008 UConn MSE alumnus and director of metallurgy at Ulbrich Stainless Steels & Special Metals, was one of the first UConn MSE graduates to work at the world-renowned Wallingford steel company, and he certainly won’t be the last.
Sean, along with Samantha Brantley (B.S. 2015), Samuel Guerra (B.S. 2017), Allie Kelley (B.S. 2015), and Keith Grayeb (B.S. 2009), are all alumni of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, and are all working full-time at the company with their degrees in materials science.
Keith, currently senior process metallurgist at Ulbrich, was the first intern at the company, working there over the summer between his sophomore and junior year in 2007. When he graduated, he worked at Sikorsky for a year before Ulbrich reached out to him with an offer, where he has been working for eight years since.
Sean, on the other hand, started his position as he graduated, based on a recommendation from a professor.
“I really liked the flexibility of Ulbrich, in terms of being able to chart my own course,” he said.
The other graduates began to trickle in, as the company began to have a greater presence in UConn’s career fairs, and began supporting Senior Design projects for MSE.
Allie Kelley, an associate process metallurgist at the company, was hired at Ulbrich after the company funded her Senior Design project.
“When they interviewed me for the job, I realized I loved the group I was going to be working with,” Allie said.
Since Keith’s internship and Sean’s hiring, the two have made an effort to include UConn in hiring new graduates, and in including Ulbrich in UConn’s growth as a premier STEM-based university and research hub for Connecticut.
“It feels that the UConn presence has grown with the materials science program size,” Sean said. “From there, we’ve followed the progression of the program. We’ve funded more Senior Design Projects, we’ve hired more interns from MSE, we’ve recognized our need to have young, technically-educated people in our company. MSE has grown to meet that need.”
“We’ve developed this manufacturing-academic relationship with UConn MSE,” Sean said. “We know the professors, we get to know the students through their Senior Design projects and internships, it’s been an interesting progression.”
It’s not just projects and hires that Ulbrich is looking at now, Keith said. Soon, the company will start to use UConn MSE’s new resources at the Innovation Partner Building.
“We’re expanding beyond just a pipeline of internships,” Keith said. “UConn has a lot of resources in analytical equipment, like AFMs, to test new products. Now with the Innovation Partnership Building, we’re hoping to form a further partnership with UConn for using, and training with, the analytical equipment MSE has to offer. This equipment will help Ulbrich be able to better adapt to the market.”
“In order to best serve our customers, we need to look at things the same way our customers do- and they often have the analytical equipment that UConn does,” Keith said.
As the University continues to adapt and expand towards Connecticut’s industry needs, companies like Ulbrich are given more opportunity to partner with the university for R&D, creating a two-way road between businesses and the academic world, Sean said.
“UConn MSE’s expansion into market and company services is beneficial to Connecticut-based manufactures like Ulbrich,” Sean said, “that may not have the room or resources for the analytical equipment they need. UConn funding so much equipment and expertise at the IPB is a great fit, which means we can begin to create that knowledge here.”
As Ulbrich continues to look to expand its relationship, the company plans to keep on hiring interns and MSE grads—both in due to the quality of MSE’s education.
“We all had different backgrounds and internships, but we’re all in the same kind of mindset,” Sean said. “When we come into manufacturing, we’re able to bounce different ideas off of each other. We have a desire for connectivity. We all just want to exchange information.”
Even though many of the alumni have different ideas and experiences, many of them have gone through the same courses that Sean and Keith went through 10 years ago. “Those classes are a way of proving that an applicant has an acceptable work ethic,” Keith said. “Hard classes that we all took have a way of breeding critical thinking, which help foster the mindset that we’re looking for.”
Sean added that many of the concepts and contexts that his fellow MSE graduates are taught are easily relatable, even though many of the graduates are in different departments of the company.
“Being able to reference a common experience or example that a professor taught us, really helps with understanding,” he said.
For many of the alumni, their professors and advisors were a keystone in their development as engineers and dedicated students.
“Professor Harold Brody is the fundamental reason I began at Ulbrich,” Sean said. “Professor Brody knew directly of an opening at Ulbrich that fit what I was looking for. By Friday morning of that same week I had an interview, and by Friday afternoon I had an offer. Our small graduating class reflected as we parted MSE on how our advisors had all worked to support our professional or academic transitions.”
For Samantha, the support her advisor, Professor Pamir Alpay, gave her during her time at UConn helped her through her journey as an MSE student, and have her contacts for her career in Ulbrich.
“Professor Alpay always encouraged me when the MSE curriculum tested my stamina,” Samantha said. “If I had a month of rigorous workload ahead, he would frequently check-in and even schedule weekly meetings for support. Pamir has a well-established network and would often recommend that I get in contact with his colleagues currently in industry. The professionals I met through his guidance made the differences between academia and industry clear, providing me with the confidence a minority in STEM needs. By creating an open and honest mentorship, Professor Alpay truly influenced my career path for the better.”
Overall, Sean said that he is grateful for the experiences that MSE was able to provide for him and his team of MSE graduates. Sam Guerra, associate process metallurgist, said that without the University, he wouldn’t be as successful as he is today.
“The MSE program was able to give us so much stuff we wouldn’t be able to access normally,” Sam said. “It’s really great to see my company hiring people from the same program, and to see that they’ve been able to keep up with the industry.”
“The MSE department is really positioned to care about what happens to alumni after they graduate,” he said. “They get students ready to enter, and succeed in, the workforce.