Robert W. Helm establishes fellowship to honor his father, propel UA research in biomaterials


When Rob Helm, a partner with the global law firm Dechert LLP in Washington, D.C., and his wife, Mimie, decided to give back, the couple chose to do things that honored their parents. Fortunately for The University of Akron, Helm’s father, Robert E. Helm Jr., was a UA alumnus.

The late Robert E. Helm '50, shown here working in the control room of Firestone's Salinas, Calif., facility, circa 1980s, was honored recently by his son and daughter-in-law, Rob and Mimie Helm. The couple established a fellowship in UA's College of Polymer Science and Polymer Engineering to recognize Mr. Helm's career in polymer science.

Mr. Helm, who passed away in 2001, was a World War II veteran who attended The University of Akron on the GI Bill, earning a degree in chemistry in 1950. Following graduation, he joined the management trainee program at Firestone Tire and Rubber Company and later became chief chemist at the Firestone manufacturing facility in Salinas, Calif. In 1981 he joined SigmaForm Corporation, a maker of advanced polymer materials, and retired from the company in 1987.

To honor Mr. Helm’s distinguished 37-year career in the field of polymer science, Rob and Mimie pledged a substantial gift in 2012 to establish The Robert E. Helm Jr. Post-Doctoral Fellow in Polymer Science and Biomaterials at The University of Akron. The endowment supports deserving post-doctoral students in UA’s Institute of Polymer Science and Polymer Engineering who exemplify a strong commitment to leading-edge research in the field of biomaterials.

The impact of such research has the potential to be far-reaching. The field of biomaterials is an area of rapid growth in the future – and one that is increasing exponentially.

“My wife and I are very aware that in higher education, funding is key,” said Rob, who was born in Akron. “Cutting-edge research projects and the cultivation of young minds cannot happen without financial support. That’s why we are so delighted to be part of an effort that does just that.”

Mike Sherman, UA’s senior vice president, provost and chief operating officer, knows well the value of such philanthropy. “The University of Akron has a deep appreciation for the Helms’ vision and commitment to research,” he said. “This fellowship is a tribute to Robert E. Helm Jr. and the legacy of his work – and supports the biomaterials research that has made UA a world-wide leader in breakthroughs that hold the promise of new discoveries, transformative advances, and tangible products to benefit mankind.”

Thanks to the Helm Fellowship, researchers (l-r) Ling Chen, Zhijun Xu, and Ying Xu in UA's Institute of Polymer Science and Polymer Engineering are breaking new ground in the field of biomaterials.

Already, the funds provided by the Helms are making a difference, especially at a time when federal funding continues to decline. Thanks to the Helms’ gift, UA’s recently established initiative in biomaterials research is breaking new ground by extending the understanding of polymeric and traditional ceramics to biology and biomedical engineering. For example:

  • Researcher Zhijun Xu, Ph.D., is using computer simulation to understand how bones are formed in the body, in particular, how the mineral part of the bone forms inside the polymer part of the bone, or collagen, which is a natural biopolymer. Xu’s discovery of a polymer molecule, in fact, has never been visualized at the atomic level– until now.
  • Graduate student Ling Chen is studying calcified turkey leg tendons and using this information to better understand collagen calcification in other areas, such as bones.
  • And graduate student Ying Xu is working to develop functional polyesters with biomedical applications, such as bio-adhesives and drug-delivery carriers.

All three recipients of the fellowship have expressed gratitude for the generosity of the Helms. “With their support,” said Xu, “I am able to focus on my research and not worry about funding. I greatly appreciate their profound contribution.” According to Chen, “This kind of support makes it possible for us to continue our research, which will benefit others one day.”

The Helms couldn’t agree more. “If you are considering a gift to any institution,” said Rob, “I would encourage you to think about The University of Akron, and especially the College of Polymer Science and Polymer Engineering. My wife and I both feel this particular fund we’ve established at UA is one of the most impactful charitable contributions we’ve made.”