Earth and mineral sciences alumnus honored with Distinguished Alumni Award

Penn State alumnus Delbert Day, inventor and materials scientist, (second from left) accepts a 2019 Distinguished Alumni Award, the highest honor the University bestows upon its alumni, from Penn State President Eric Barron (left), at a ceremony on May 31, 2019.  Credit: Penn State / Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Last year, thousands of people with inoperable liver cancer received hope from a treatment that involves injecting millions of microscopic, radioactive glass spheres near the tumor.

Others, suffering from chronic wounds, experienced relief thanks to new bioactive glass that bonds to skin and allows it a better chance to heal.

The co-inventor of these technologies, Delbert Day, a master's and doctoral graduate from Penn State's College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, is among seven Penn State alumni who received the 2019 Distinguished Alumni Award — the highest honor the University bestows upon its alumni.

“You are always surprised and flattered to receive this kind of recognition,” said Day, who accepted the award in May. “When it’s the people who know you best, when they see something that in their opinion is an achievement, that means quite a bit.”

Day, a prolific inventor and esteemed materials scientist, has published more than 400 papers on the properties, structures and uses of glass, and has received 47 U.S. and foreign patents. In 2017, the National Academy of Inventors named him a fellow.

But Day’s career may have had a much different trajectory had he not answered the phone one day nearly 61 years ago.

A life-changing phone call

On the other line was Guy E. Rindone, then a faculty member of the Department of Ceramic Science and Engineering, the predecessor to the Department of Material Science and Engineering, who would go on to have a long career at Penn State, including more than a decade as department head.

Rindone remembered Day from a ceramics conference in Pittsburgh months before and inquired whether Day had considered attending graduate school.

Day, who was weeks away from completing his undergraduate degree at the Missouri School of Mines and Metallurgy, intended to leave academia and pursue a career in industry, but something about the phone call intrigued him enough that he agreed to visit Penn State.

“Here was a college professor who didn’t know me from Adam, but he had heard something I said in this student speaking contest, and he had remembered that and took his time and called me up,” Day said. “I thought, a person like that, maybe you should pay some attention to him.”

Day said his time studying at Penn State and his work with Rindone prepared him for a long career creating glasses for uses in the healthcare, electronics, transportation, aerospace and chemical industries.  

“My eyes were opened to a different kind of school,” Day said. “I’ve always been very proud of the fact that I had the opportunity to go to Penn State. I never expected that type of opportunity. It was just kind of like a great streak of good luck.”

Using glass to improve lives

After earning his master's and doctorate at Penn State, Day became a faculty member at the Missouri University of Science and Technology, where he is now Curators’ Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Materials Science and Engineering.  

Soon after joining the faculty, Day and his students had the opportunity to help treat patients with inoperable liver cancer using glass microspheres.

The technology, marketed today under the brand name TheraSphere, allows doctors to inject the radioactive glass spheres into the blood stream that feeds the tumor, in a unique form of radiation therapy.

“My students took to this project, and I didn’t have to motivate them,” Day said. “When I saw the reaction in those students, I said, ‘you know, maybe we should just concentrate on working on problems that have direct application.’ From that point on, we looked to develop glasses that could help a person in some way.”

Day and a student later created bioactive glass fibers that can help treat chronic wounds, the kinds that often affect the elderly and those suffering from diabetes and other health issues. Bioactive glasses have also been used for bone repair and in dental applications.

“I think when you have the opportunity to actually help someone, and you are able to see it materialize, being a part of that would excite anyone,” Day said. “Or at least it should."

Last Updated July 16, 2019