Engineering’s Laird Fellows recently celebrated their 40th anniversary

Hiking. Dancing. Traveling. UD engineers do more than research.

For 40 years, graduate students in engineering have had access to a special fellowship that helps one recipient per year pursue an interest beyond their field of study.

The George W. Laird Merit Fellowship honors the memory of George W. Laird, who earned a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree from UD and died in 1977, at age 35, in a tragic accident. The funds to support this fellowship were established by Laird’s family and friends, who were determined to create something positive in light of their tragic loss.

The reunion

In October, past recipients from near and far—England, China, and cities across the United States—gathered for the 40th Laird Fellowship Reunion.

“We had a simply fabulous event with the highlights being our interaction with President Dennis Assanis, the Dean of Engineering Babatunde Ogunnaike, and the department chairs, as well as the career panel event we hosted and the tour of the engineering departments we organized,” said Ajit Thyagarajan, president of the Laird Fellowship and founder and chief technology officer of Atomic Mole, a cybersecurity company.

“Many of the Laird Fellows stay engaged with the University even after graduation and the fellowship is looking at innovative ways of strengthening that bond with the University,” he said.

Tom Buchanan, a George W. Laird Professor of Mechanical Engineering who has served as chair of the fellowship’s selection committee, also spoke at the 40th reunion dinner at the Wilmington Club.

Reflections on 40 years

Chris Herd, who earned a master’s in mechanical and aerospace engineering from UD in 1984, won the Laird Fellowship in 1983. He used the funds to travel in Asia and North Africa, where he learned about cultures and customs he had not encountered before.

“This award enabled me to get a broader perspective on life,” he said.

Herd’s classes at UD certainly prepared him for his career, but “the Laird Fellowship augmented that, going beyond technical expertise and giving me a more socially conscious perspective,” he said.

As a service director at PerkinElmer, Herd oversees installation of software to gather and analyze experimental data. At the reunion, he relished the opportunity to see what a variety of engineers are up to. “The department tours gave us great exposure to different types of research on the cutting edge,” he said.

Another highlight: connecting with likeminded individuals.

“The Fellowship tries to find fellows who want to make the world a better place. We share that,” he said. “When we come together, we reinforce that value, that belief system in us.”

For Danielle Valcourt, a doctoral student in biomedical engineering and the 2016 fellowship recipient, the 40th Laird Fellowship Reunion was her first opportunity to meet so many prior recipients.

“We can see how much it means to the family when they talk about Geordie, what he was like and how that is reflected in each of us,” she said.

Valcourt used some of her funds to purchase a dog, a mixed breed who is a “great companion.”

How to apply

First-year graduate students in the UD’s College of Engineering can apply for the Laird Fellowship through their departments. Applications will be accepted starting in December.

Valcourt encourages applicants to simply be themselves.

“I allowed myself to show my quirky side,” she said of her application.