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Q&A with Professor John Fisher

John FisherWhat impact could your work have on society or consumers?

One of the best things about our work is that it is an easily motivated story that everybody can understand and get excited about. Just like a civil engineer would build a bridge to help a community, bioengineers and tissue engineers build tissues or constructs that help the body regenerate lost tissue. There might be some very technical or esoteric details, but helping patients should be the driving force of the work. You always have to keep that in mind.

What attracted you to the Clark School?

The [Clark School of Engineering] has a great, longstanding reputation in traditional engineering disciplines‚ electrical, mechanical, aerospace...In addition, there had been some excellent work in the bio-applications of engineering, but it hadn't been the focus of the school until recently, with work that [professor and department chair] Dr. Bentley and others have done. The reason I was excited about coming here was because it was a place where there was an infrastructure to do great work, but it was also a place where I could come in and make an impact with my research and teaching.

Why should young engineers consider bioengineering for their field of study?

I think what excites many people about bioengineering is that it's engineering applied to humanity and human health. But I also think a young student who's deciding what engineering discipline to go into should do whatever gets them excited.

How does the interdisciplinary nature of our program impact or improve our students' abilities in the lab or the workplace?

I think in biomaterials research it's critical to bring in groups from materials science, chemistry or biology‚Äîif you don't, you're going to miss a lot of the relevancy to the devices or approaches you're creating. In [my lab's] case we work closely with physicians in the medical and dental schools. On an educational level, we've taken a class field trip  to watch a surgery where they implanted a biomaterial [in a patient].  I've had surgeons come down and give talks and explain the problems they deal with on a daily basis. It gets the students extremely excited about what we're doing.  The only thing I worry about is that I'll end up motivating the students to become surgeons instead of bioengineers!

What kinds of roles or careers are our students prepared for?

Federal labs, clinical labs, as well as industry.  There are a lot of small biotech companies in this area  so there are a lot of opportunities. One of my former graduate students now works for the American Dental Association's labs at NIST. I think the best thing you learn as an undergraduate is the engineering approach to problem-solving, a critical way of thinking about problems. That approach, that way of thinking, is easily applied to just about anything.

What's your favorite class to teach, and why?

The lab class[es are] great to teach because [they're] very pragmatic. They are focused on problem solving, analysis of data, and presentation of data; I really enjoy that side of our work.  When I was in school, working the lab was what I thought I did the best. I like teaching those thinking skills.

Tell us about a "must take" elective you recommend for students majoring in bioengineering.

Statistics. It doesn't need to be completely sophisticated statistics, but the basics: fundamental skills, how to analyze data, how to set up an experiment...It's something you'll use every day if you do anything experimentally- or technologically-driven in your career.

What would students be surprised to learn about you?

Not very much! [laughs] I tell everybody everything. My wife is Irish so we spend a lot of time going back and forth to Ireland. I've gotten to know my long-lost Irish relatives pretty well, and I've somehow become the family genealogist.

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