World Grain interview: Dirk Maier

by Meyer Sosland
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As it nears its 100th anniversary, Kansas State University’s (KSU) Department of Grain Science and Industry has selected Dirk Maier as its new leader.

Maier began his duties as department head on April 1. Previously, he had worked as professor and associate head of Purdue University’s Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering. Maier was a professor and extension agricultural engineer at Purdue since 1991, and associate department head since 2005.

Maier’s research at Purdue focused on engineered technologies for the protection of stored products and the delivery of identity-preserved, traceable and biosecure quality grains for the food, industrials, biofuels and feed processing industries.

During his time at Purdue, Maier secured more than $9 million in research, technology transfer and extension education grants and received numerous awards.

Maier will lead a department that is known worldwide for its baking, milling, feed production and grain handling educational programs. KSU, located in Manhattan, Kansas, is the only university in the United States that offers college degrees in baking, feed and milling science and management. It is also expanding its reach into biorefinery/biofuels operations management.

The department also has a strong international program focused on educating international consumers about U.S. cereal products on their utilization and value.

World Grain talked with Maier in May about his vision for the grain science department and the role it can play in supporting the global grain, flour, feed and biofuels industries.

WG: What are the department’s strengths and weaknesses, and how do you plan to overcome those weaknesses to strengthen the program?

Maier: Obviously one of the primary strengths of the department is its history. We are within two years of celebrating the 100-year anniversary of the department. We have a very long tradition of applied degree programs serving specific industries: milling, baking, feed and grain. Our industry ties, alumni support and our reputation are some of the key strengths the department has benefited from in the past.

The department is coming through a period of regrouping and rebuilding. We are still in a building up phase. We have had a number of key retirements of faculty over the last five-plus years. Whenever you have such an outstanding group of faculty retire, and you are not able to fill their positions right away, you have this gap. As you fill these positions with new, younger faculty, it takes time and much effort for the new faculty to develop the reputation your retired faculty had. I would say those are growing pains. I would not say those are weaknesses. I would say these are new opportunities. We must discern what some of the right opportunities for us are in terms of our teaching mission, our research opportunities and our professional development programs.

WG: After a period in which the number of faculty and students in the milling science program dropped significantly, progress has been made in bringing those numbers back up. Are you satisfied with the current number of faculty and students in that program? What plans do you have to increase those numbers?

Maier: There is room for more. The milling program has experienced growth. I am doing exit interviews with graduating seniors and that is a very good feedback opportunity. From what I am hearing, they are all getting multiple job offers and very good package offers really across all degree programs, but also specifically in the milling program.

What that tells me is that there is a need for more students. It tells me that there is a strong demand in the industry to fill those positions. We basically need to continue to grow the program. A key strategy to that is recruiting. This is where we are looking to the industry as a partner in terms of bringing more undergraduate students, or different ways of how we can bring undergraduates students, into our very unique program here at K-State.

I think the other component of that is the very strong scholarship support that I see. I have spent some time looking at all the scholarships that the department is receiving, particularly for undergraduate students in all of our programs. I am also getting feedback from the graduating seniors that they have been extremely appreciative of the strong scholarship support they have received over their years here at Kansas State. There is room for more growth there as well in terms of the need for scholarships and the level of scholarships that our students are getting in terms of total amounts. I think that will continue to attract and help us in our recruiting phase.

WG: What are the demographics of your student population? What is the breakdown in terms of the number of international students vs. domestic students?

Maier: The undergraduate program is predominantly a domestic student program. We have right now about 145 undergraduate students in the program, which represents an increase from a few years ago. We have room for 200-plus, in terms of teaching faculty, in terms of teaching classrooms, laboratory space and so forth. We can handle well over 200 students. Slightly more than half of those students are in the milling program, and the other half is split almost evenly between feed science and bakery science. In terms of demographics, we have a very good diversity of students. We have about 30% female in milling science, 80% in bakery science, and 35% in feed science, which overall represents a very strong female presence in all of our programs.

The program is a little heavy on students from Kansas. Kansans are the majority in the undergraduate programs. We have a number of undergraduates from other states but not enough. One of the inhibiting factors is of course the out-ofstate tuition. There is a substantial difference between out-of-state and in-state tuition. And so, we need help from the industry to bring our student numbers up.

We need to improve our recruiting efforts by partnering with the industry.

There are companies located in New Jersey and California and all across the country, and it is sometimes difficult to get a student from Kansas, who is graduating, to want to go all the way to New Jersey or California. Now, if we can figure out a way to bring students from New Jersey and California to Kansas State and then go back, that is what we would like to see. The good news is that the attitude of all students with respect to taking jobs away from their home states is changing. During this year’s senior exit interviews, I sensed nothing but excitement about their job opportunities across the country.

It is also important to have the scholarship support to pay for the students and help absorb some of the financial costs. I envision that in the next few years that we are going to deliver a number of our courses by distance. If we can identify, with the help of companies, students in other states, maybe they can start working for those companies or do internships for those companies, go to junior college to get a lot of their basic courses out of the way and take one or two of our introductory courses via distance learning from where they are. They could then come to KSU for their second and third year or even take our more advanced courses via distance learning.

They could come here during the summer sessions and do the lab and hands on stuff in a very intensive mode.

I think we could attract students from all kinds of places, including overseas, into our degree programs. I have no problem envisioning half of our students taking their BS degrees via distance from our faculty right here with the technologies that are available. Then they can come here during a few on-campus sessions. If you do a distance program, you are also getting a substantial break on the tuition, because there is a different rate on distance learning versus out-of-state tuition.

We have about 40 graduate students at this time. The demographics of our graduate program are that we are about 50-50 split between male and female, but very top-heavy on international students. We are almost 80% international and only 20% domestic. There are a number of reasons for that. One is clearly that our graduating seniors are getting excellent job offers and they are getting recruited heavily. So staying on another couple years to do a master’s degree versus starting a great job in the $50,000 range is a tough choice. That is why it is difficult to recruit domestic graduate students. Another reason is that we receive a lot of international applications. We have very good international students. It is hard to turn them away, particularly if you do not have domestic students to fill the need. I would like to see the balance move toward 60-40 or even 50-50 in the long term.

WG: What role do you see the department having in benefiting both the domestic and international grains industry? In what ways can KSU improve its partnership with the industry?

Maier: I think we can continue to benefit the domestic and international grains industry by making our very unique degrees more accessible via distance, for example. We can continue to partner in terms of meeting various research needs that some companies cannot meet in house.

We have some very excellent facilities and outstanding staff. One of the unique resources we have is the International Grains Program. It is sort of a hidden gem that has done an excellent job. It is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. We need to take advantage of that organization, infrastructure and staff to expand our short course program offerings.

We are looking at partnerships with various professional organizations and associations. One of them is the Grain Elevator and Processing Society (GEAPS). Others are the American Feed Industry Association (AFIA) and the International Association of Operative Millers (IAOM).

WG: In turn, what kind of support would you like to see from the grains industry?

Maier: The partnership that we have with the industry is an excellent partnership. We would like to continue to build on that, expand it and improve it. We are working on re-establishing and reviewing our departmental and degree program advisory boards. Each one of our programs depends on the right industry representation. We have appreciated those who have served in those capacities over the years. We would like to see the level of people that are participating in these advisory boards to be at the highest corporate levels as much as possible so that they have a direct insight into and interaction with our students.

We would like to continue to see our scholarship support expand, in particular as we are trying to attract students from beyond the state of Kansas. We continue to need open doors for internships. We expect our students to have one or two years of internships. Placing them into the companies is a win-win, because companies get to check out potential employees, and it is an outstanding educational experience for the students.

This fall I am going to be working with our students who go on summer internships to better understand their experiences. Also, we need to understand from the industry where the future job opportunities are. We want to make sure that our curricula are set up and geared to meet those needs and the expectations.

WG: At Purdue you were heavily involved in several distance education programs. How do you intend to expand KSU’s outreach efforts?

Maier: We are actively working on that. As a matter of fact, I am teaching a distance course right now. It is a five-week course called GEAPS 511, which is a facility design course. We are currently in the process of developing a safety distance course. It is going to be launched in June. That entire program was headquartered at Purdue under my initiative. That agreement will be expiring at the end of the year. I will be working with GEAPS, Purdue and K-State to bring that program over here. It will continue to involve faculty and collaboration with Purdue. The GEAPS program will be one of the first professional development distance education programs here at Kansas State. We are hoping to do a similar thing with the American Feed Industry Association and the International Association of Operative Millers.

Then, from that basis of professional development distance education program, we are looking at growing our distance education programs into bachelor degrees and eventually a professional master’s degree over the next few years. As we expand into that area we are going to reach a whole new student population with regard to that.

A unique component of that is we have some fantastic infrastructure here in terms of the new flour mill, the future bio-refinery/feed mill, the extrusion and several other labs. So as part of that distance education curriculum, we can have advanced courses and lab courses where students can, as part of degree requirements or as options of professional development programs, come here to get the hands-on training. We are going to be improving our short course offerings by having less time spent in classrooms listening to lectures, because we can do that by distance. We can then spend most of our time hands-on in the labs and pilot facilities, and a lot less time in the class room while the students are here. We can potentially decrease the time students are here for short courses, which should make this combination approach more attractive to employers.

One of the things we hear from companies is that they cannot send someone for a two-week or one-week short course. But if you can do it on a Thursday, Friday and Saturday, then they would be happy to send their employees.

WG: The next facility scheduled to be built in the Grain Science Complex is the feed mill/ethanol biorefinery building? How close are you to your fundraising goal and when do you anticipate breaking ground on that project?

Maier: We are very close. My goal is that in two years when we celebrate our centennial we will have cut the ribbon on our biorefinery and feed mill. That is my expectation. I think we are going to be able to do it.

We have the potential to break ground by the end of this year or early next year. My goal is that the centennial celebration’s fundraising initiative will be more focused on people. That is scholarships, endowed professorships, and facility improvement types of things.

WG: What plans does KSU have for expanding its reach into biorefinery/ biofuels operations education?

Maier: Through the distance education program, which will be coming to K-State, we already have one course available that will be offered in June. We have a number of courses that will be developed out of that first course.

On the professional development side, we will keep moving forward on the operations education program. On the undergraduate degree side, we have a biofuels option in the feed science and management program. I know that we will have the first undergraduate student who specialized in biofuels graduating next year. I think this option is an excellent recruiting tool for us to bring more students into the program.

Where the biofuels industry is headed, whether it is grain-based now and cellulosic later on, people need to know particle size reduction to prepare any material, whether it is pulp, switchgrass or grain. We cover the fermentation process and the enzyme technology related to that. Quality analysis of ingredients and final products, logistics handling of the co-product, further processing and transportation are all covered. It does not matter what we process, the technologies and sciences being taught in our undergrad program will apply.

WG: During your time at Purdue, you secured more than $9 million in research, technology transfer and extension education grants. What are your goals for KSU in those areas? Do you envision expanding the amount of research that is being done in the department?

Maier: The opportunities are out there, and we have excellent faculty that has the capability to be successful in grantsmanship; that is grantsmanship not only related to research but also for service contracts and outreach extension-type contracts. There are plenty of opportunities to expand that and be successful in that.

Grant support will enable us to hire more graduate students, employ more of our undergraduate students on sponsored projects while pursuing their degrees, bring on additional post-doctoral researchers and other technical staff.

WG: It was hoped that the Ross Mill would help the department, both as a recruiting and teaching tool. To what degree does that appear to be the case?

Maier: There is absolutely no doubt that it has had a major impact, not only on the department but also the milling program. I know in talking with our recruiter that we have had a number of undergraduate students commit to here because of the facilities we have available.

We have been able to really attract a lot more of the professional milling short courses from companies like Buhler, which has made a tremendous commitment to making the Hal Ross Flour Mill a reality. They are having trainings here. This facility is what people can relate to. The Hal Ross Flour Mill represents the current stateof-the-art in the milling industry.

In the long term, what we also need, and this is where we are going to need a lot of industry support, is to move the department from Shellenberger Hall into a new building at the new Grain Science Complex so that everything — our offices, teaching classrooms, research labs and the baking program — are together. That is going to take a major effort over the next five to ten years to make that happen.