COLLEGE STATION --
Don Birkelbach '70, Senior Regional Director of Major Gifts for the Texas A&M Foundation
and a member of the College of Science Academy of Distinguished Former Students
(2000), received both his bachelor's (1970) and master's degrees (1971) in chemistry from Texas A&M University en route to a 27-year career with The Dow Chemical Company
. Birkelbach held several positions at Dow in plastics research and development, manufacturing and human resources. His research resulted in 12 U.S. patents and the discovery of linear low-density polyethylene -- a breakthrough that was recognized with an Industrial Research IR-100 award and is now one of Dow's largest sales volume products. In addition, he also served as a development officer for the Texas A&M Foundation in both the College of Science (2001-2008) and the Dwight Look College of Engineering (2009-2012) prior to assuming his current regional role.
When it comes to investing in the future of Texas A&M, Birkelbach takes his own advice. During the past decade, he and his wife Shirley have created two endowed scholarships and a planned gift within the College of Science to financially support current and future chemistry students at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.
Yesterday, Birkelbach took five (well, in his case, six, given that he's wearing multiple hats for us and therefore deserves a bonus question) with Texas A&M Science to discuss a variety of topics, from why he chose chemistry and a research career, to why he now chooses to give back as a donor and to devote his second career to encouraging others to join him in such philanthropic efforts.
Why did you decide to become a chemist and pursue not only a bachelor's degree but also your master's in chemistry?
"I decided to pursue a degree in chemistry because I had a high school chemistry teacher who made chemistry interesting and helped me to understand that things can be made better using chemistry. I preferred analytical chemistry because it allows us to determine the composition of a material. Obviously, the experiments we did in high school were fairly simple, but the concepts made a significant impact on my future. Quite frankly, I never had a good high school counselor who told me about any other options; but looking back, it was a pretty good choice for me.
"I decided as I was completing my undergraduate degree that if I wanted to be competitive as a chemist in an industrial setting, I needed to have more knowledge than the basic chemistry knowledge I received as an undergrad. I was accepted into graduate school at A&M and had every intention of completing a Ph.D., but Uncle Sam had different ideas. I took a double graduate course load, completed my research and wrote and defended my thesis in one year, which is all of the time Uncle Sam would give me. I received my masters one year after completing my BS. I was off to the Navy the next week to start Officer Candidate School and spend about three and a half years in the Navy."
What do you consider your biggest accomplishment during your nearly 30-year career with Dow?
"This is a tough question to answer since I had a number of rewarding assignments during my career with Dow. From a research perspective, I am the author or coauthor of 12 U.S. patents for polyolefin catalysis, but my most significant accomplishment was the discovery of linear low-density polyethylene, which received an IR-100 Award in 1976. This product has had an impact on the daily lives of almost every person in the country. It is used in a wide variety of film applications, from puncture-resistant trash bags and food storage bags to stretch film wrap for shipping pallets. Use of this product has allowed Dow industry customers to make even better products with thinner films and therefore lower costs. It also is a cost-effective option for thin-wall containers, such as those used for butter, yogurt and personal-care items. Linear low-density polyethylene is now one of Dow Chemical's largest and most successful products and one of the reasons why Dow is the largest producer of polyethylene products in the world.
"Also rewarding was the opportunity to serve as the recruiting and hiring manager for Dow for five years and to lead the recruiting efforts at Texas A&M for almost 10 years. I enjoyed working with students who were ready to start their careers and enjoyed talking about job opportunities at Dow. My education at Texas A&M helped to open so many doors for me, so it was rewarding for me to hold the door open for more Aggies to follow me at Dow."
What was the most important quality you looked for in potential employees as a recruiter at Dow?
"As a recruiter, there was never any doubt that Texas A&M students who had reasonable GPAs would have the technical knowledge that our jobs demanded. But we also wanted leaders who were self-starters. We looked for individuals who had the ability to interact and communicate effectively with others, because nothing is accomplished in industry by a single individual -- it takes teamwork to accomplish a common goal. Texas A&M offers excellent opportunities for students to obtain that 'second education' that is so valued by industrial employers."
As someone who spent a good portion of your career in scientific research, why do you feel such efforts are important?
"During my years of being involved with industrial research, I've learned that there are always opportunities to develop better, more cost-effective and environmentally friendly products that use fewer raw materials. Only through our pursuit of knowledge can we create solutions to meet the challenges of the future. We should question ideas that do not make sense or are automatically presumed to be true, and seek out new perspectives. The reason that most of us in the United States enjoy a good standard of living is because someone is always seeking a better way."
Along that same line, wy do you feel it's important to invest in the future of Texas A&M and its students through endowed scholarships and fellowships?
"We must continue working to ensure that all qualified students have a chance to succeed at Texas A&M, regardless of their economic backgrounds. A scholarship and on-campus job gave me the opportunity to attend Texas A&M. Without them, it would have been difficult if not impossible for me to attend.
"The cost of attending Texas A&M has increased significantly since then, but I want to ensure that the opportunities I had are also available to students for generations to come. One of the ways former students can do this is through philanthropy. If you have enjoyed success in your career because of what you learned at Texas A&M, consider giving back. It is essential that future students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds have the opportunity to succeed and to contribute to society through an Aggie education. The Aggie Spirit must continue to live on."
Why should students get involved in research?
"Whether you're planning to work in academia or industry, exposure to research is vital to any science major. It gives students the opportunity to put the technical knowledge that they have learned in the classroom into practce in a real-world situation. Only through designed experiments, careful observation and data analysis can we expand the knowledge base of a discipline, solve problems or develop new products.
"Texas A&M's challenging academic programs and highly skilled faculty have been effective in preparing undergraduate and graduate students for careers."
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Now in its 17th year, Student Research Week
is a friendly competition that highlights both undergraduate and graduate research at Texas A&M, one of the country's top research universities. The weeklong celebration fosters an environment for students, faculty and administrators to learn about student research at Texas A&M, but also gives students an opportunity to win numerous awards and cash prizes. To learn more about the week's schedule and specific events, see this recent feature article
For more information on philanthropic support for research activities in the College of Science, go to http://www.science.tamu.edu/giving/
Contact: Shana K. Hutchins, (979) 862-1237 or firstname.lastname@example.org or Don Birkelbach, (979) 845-7560 or email@example.com