“Hello, Hello?” He says very jokingly into
my recorder as he reaches for it. “I’ll take that off your hands,” a humble voice speaks softly and clearly. We sat on his cozy family room couch and he talked as if he were a close family friend or someone that I had known for many years. Our conversation felt very natural. Nothing was answered incompletely; his responses were in-depth and inspiring. I was fortunate to be talking to Professor Norbert Pelc who, on July 1st was named Chairman of the Bioengineering Department at Stanford University. Science is not necessarily my forte so at first I was intimidated by the thought of learning about a field that was so science based. However, Norbert quickly changed my mind and made me feel like one of his students. He gave me a tour of his new office in the James H. Clark Center on the Stanford campus and I learned first hand that he is a talented teacher. When we entered the modern, sunlit room, he directed me to a whiteboard hanging on the wall where he drew diagrams to teach me about vacuum tubes and the details of their function. His full graying mustache framed his wide smile and his warm manner immediately made me at ease. Usually, comple x physics concepts would start to make my
“there will be a 72% growth in the field [bioengineering] within the next decade.” - Bureau of Labor head spin, but everything he said actually made sense. When I first walked into the office, I immediately noticed a framed photo of Norbert shaking hands with Bill Clinton sitting on a shelf above his desk. I started to suspect that this humble man was more accomplished than he led me to believe. I hadn’t heard much about bioengineering until I read a news article entitled “Where the Jobs are: Biomedical Engineering” which referred to The Bureau of Labor Statistics prediction that that there will be a 72% growth in the field within the next decade (Sexton). It was a pretty impressive number to me but I still did not have a clear understanding about what type of jobs they were referring to. What I have learned from Norbert is that bioengineering is a vast area. It is technically, as Norbert described, the fusion of life sciences and quantitative engineering and physics. In simpler terms, Bioengineers create new devices that help improve the fields of medicine, green technology, and so much more. They build everything from prosthetic limbs to new tissues. Scientists in bioengineering take the know how
“Within a couple of weeks they had implemented this in the software and the problem went away and I was a hero.” -Norbert pelc, S C D of engineering to solve medical problems and design solutions for disease, abnormalities, and injury (Department Spotlight Bioengineering). All you hear today is about how students cannot get jobs when they graduate and I was interested in finding out more about this growing field and its impact on our community, especially if it might offer employment opportunities in my future. As Norbert spoke with me in his warm and comfortable Los Altos home he told me about where his interest in science began. He grew up in Argentina and moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin when he was in 5th grade. He was always interested in science and gadgets, and would take things apart and put them back together all the time, starting with his hand me down bikes. When he lived in Argentina he taught himself how to fix the fuses and mess around with the wiring for the electricity in his home. In high school he knew he was interested in medicine and thought he might want to be a doctor, but he soon realized he didn’t like the blood and gore. He ultimately got a BS in applied mathematics, engineering and physics from the University of Wisconsin. Followed by an ScD (Doctor of Science) in medical radiological physics from Harvard University. He had found the right degree to pursue his interest in medicine through
physics and biology. His career focus since then has always been on the physics, engineering, and mathematics of medical imaging. The first commercial Computed Tomography (CT) scanner came out in 1972 and that is what persuaded Norbert to seek out his graduate work in this area. In 1978, his first job right out of graduate school was at General Electric (GE) where he was hired to improve and develop new CT scanners. That is when he first was able to make a real impact. Norbert told me a story about how when he was just twentyfive he was asked to help solve a problem on the manufacturing floor. “My feeling is that the problem I found had been there all along. But I looked at the problem, figured out what it was, and figured out how to correct it, and within a couple of weeks they had changed the software. I had figured out a software way of fixing the problem. Within a couple of weeks they had implemented this in the software and the problem went away and I was a hero. It was great thing. For me it was a great experience not because I was a hero but because it was a fun puzzle.” Norbert later went on to work in the development of MRI at GE. In 1989 he was a ready for new opportunities and challenges, and tired of the cold weather, so he came to the Department of Radiology at Stanford. Stanford gave him the opportunity to “focus on fundamental questions about
technology that may not have any application soon. To try ideas that were more off the wall” (Pelc). He was also able to work closely with doctors, which gave him a whole new perspective and a different approach to solving problems. When he first arrived at Stanford, Norbert was working on measuring blood flow using MRI. He partnered with a Radiologist to use this technique in the kidneys. They started by trying to measure blood flow in and out of the kidney and expected to get similar numbers for the right and left kidneys but their first attempts were a horrible failure. Thinking as an engineer, Norbert assumed that the biology must not be symmetric but the physician assured him that it was. They found that the problem was due to the motion from breathing. He explained, “If not working hand in hand with the physician I would never have been pushed that way… It took us five years to figure out how to do that.” I am amazed that a man of Norbert’s accomplishments can be so humble. Norbert h a s 8 5
something. I think you have to be realistic about the impact. And as I said before, had I not done it, maybe the guy from Technicare (a small manufacturer of scanners) would have done it.” With a smile on his face he joking tells me that, “The longer term impact of what we do is train the next generation and so maybe I can take credit for everything they do.” Norbert’s passion for teaching connects perfectly with his goals as Chairman of Bioengineering. Until recently Bioengineering was only offered as a PhD or Masters program but now he foresees that
patents to his name and was recently was recently elected to the National Academy of Engineering, one of the highest honors in science. When I asked him what he is most proud of he said, “I don’t think about that a whole lot.” But later in the conversation he told me, “I’ve done things that have gone into scanners and that have made those scanners work better and then those scanners have been used on millions of people.” I proceeded to ask “Isn’t it cool you have created something that has changed millions of peoples lives?” Norbert humbly replied, “I have helped to create
Pelc foresees that [Bioengineering] will become the largest undergraduate major in the School of Engineering and perhaps the whole University.
it will become the largest undergraduate major in the School of Engineering and perhaps the whole University. He plans to focus on making sure this phenomenal growth can happen successfully. His next big task is to get their new building up and running. He also has a wide-ranging vision for the department. As told me, “I and many people at Stanford see Bioengineering as a very broad field. On the one hand it has the kinds of things that we were talking about like creating life forms, and then at the other end is very applied things, like building gizmos for medicine. I want to make sure that the Bioengineering Department at Stanford continues to have that full breadth and doesn’t become narrow or doesn’t become divided into sub groups don’t talk to each other. I want to be sure we continue to have a culture of interchange across the broad field. ” When I asked Norbert why we are hearing so much about bioengineering now he described the new areas of biomedical engineering that are synthetic biology or systems biology. He used the example of chemistry explaining to me that chemical engineering is the application of chemistry to solve chemical problems, like an oil refinery. He described an analog in bioengineering. Researchers use synthetic biology to create life forms like synthetic genes. Real life examples of bioengineering include medical devices like cochlear implant or implantable defibrillators and stents. These tools allow for minimally invasive techniques to replace major surgery. New synthetic molecules, cells and tissues are also being created, “Products for skin replacement are in clinical use and progress has been made in developing technologies for repair of cartilage, bone, liver, kidney, skeletal muscle, blood vessels, the nervous system and urological disorders” (Thompson). These advances will lead to the creation of
brand new industries and major improvements in medical care. Norbert told me that inventive thinking is what applied technology is all about. He gave me an example of how a chemical engineer wanted to mimic the way cell membranes work to filter water. The cell membrane is very picky about what it lets through but its very good about letting water into the cell. The researcher came up with the idea of mimicking how a cell membrane filters water. He received funding from NASA to study how to take wastewater in space and purify it to make clean water. Norbert explained, “This is called biomimedic, you take something in biology and try to make it some useful gadget or gizmo.” Norbert’s contribution to advances in MRI and CT scanners are one small part of bioengineering but we all know first hand how much these tools have impacted our own healthcare. After sitting with him for only an hour, my mind was exploding with the potential of what great changes we have yet to experience from this growing field. Norbert’s kids went to Los Altos High, he lives right down the street from our school and I am sure you have passed him downtown getting coffee. He is just like any one of us, so unassuming and modest, but his personal contributions have made an impact well beyond our zip code. After our photo session, I showed Norbert a picture of him walking away, down the corridor of the Clark Center that I thought was great. He responded, “It’s the first time in my life that someone thought a picture of my backside was ‘great.’ Thanks Jason.” His lighthearted spirit never failed to shine through and when combined with his obvious brilliance and amazing ability to teach, he will no doubt lead Stanford Bioengineering to great success.
Written By Jason Spielman