Petit Institute executive director discusses leadership, research, and why he chose bioengineering over basketball
Petit Institute Executive Director Andrés García
When Andrés García assumed his role as executive director of the Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Bioscience in August 2018, he faced the usual challenges that wait for every new leader of an organization – identify and support what works well, then put energy into addressing what doesn’t work so well, and steer the ship.
Sounds easy when you put it like that. But not so easy when one considers the size and complexity of the ship: more than 220 interdisciplinary faculty researchers from six universities; about 1,300 trainees (students and postdocs); almost $90 million in research funding for discoveries designed to transform health care and improve the global human condition.
García, a Regents’ Professor in the George W. Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering, began his career at the Georgia Institute of Technology in 1998, along with his wife Michelle LaPlaca, professor in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory. Since then, García has built a reputation as one of the leading researchers in biomaterials and cellular/tissue engineering, and he remains focused on developing revolutionary new biomaterials and therapies for diseases such as type 1 diabetes, infections and bone repair.
Never a spotlight seeker, García is a roll-up-the-sleeves kind of leader, the consummate team player – qualities that were embedded in his DNA while growing up in Puerto Rico as the oldest of three children in a tightknit family. He also was an avid basketball player. So, the concepts of teamwork and collaboration are at his core.
García sat down with us to take stock of his first year as executive director of the Petit Institute, and to talk a little bit about leadership, research, family, and why he became a bioengineer instead of a power forward.
Interviewer: Tell us about your family and growing up in Puerto Rico.
García: I’m the oldest of three children. My father was an engineer and my mother is a nutritionist. When I was growing up on the island, family always was very important – my grandparents still lived with us. I always did very well in school and had very strong support from my family, whatever I was doing.
Interviewer: What did you like to do?
García: I loved playing basketball. As a matter of fact, I wanted to be a basketball player. That’s what I thought.
Interviewer: What happened?
García: I guess you’d call it one of the defining moments that made me get into bioengineering. When I was 11, my leg started bothering me. I couldn’t run. I would trip. They found out that I had a condition in which the growth plate in the femur was slipping. Needless to say, that significantly altered my biomechanics. The solution was to take three stainless steel pins and fuse the growth plate. So, I had that surgery on my right leg. And then rehab. I was on crutches for about three months.
Interviewer: That couldn’t have been easy, especially at that age.
García: Well, I was starting at a new school – seventh grade, all boys. They could be pretty tough on you. But I did the rehab, and then it happened on the other leg. So the plan was to put pins in the other leg. I remember waking up and my mother telling me everything had gone fine, but there was a slight problem. To make a long story short, they basically used the wrong type of screw on the right leg. But I was a growing boy with very strong bones, and the bone grew around the threads and they couldn’t take the screws out. So they left those three screws in there. Then on the other leg, my bones were very hard, so they only put in two.
Interviewer: So you still have the other pins in your bones?
García: Yep. And my parents were very worried, because stainless steel is really not the best material for long term implantation, especially when you’re 11, because it’s going to be corroding in your body forever. We talked to a couple of specialists, and the recommendation was not to mess with it because you could break the head of the femur, and then that’s probably worse. So I became very interested in biomaterials at that point, for personal reasons.
Interviewer: How have those procedures affected you physically, long term?
García: It’s been great. I’ve lived a normal life. I played basketball, I go hiking with my sons, and I work out. I’m about three inches shorter than I should have been. One of my legs grew a little longer than the other.
Interviewer: So your interest in bioengineering and biomaterials really did come naturally.
García: Yes it did. When I was in school, I originally thought that I would go on to med school or maybe start an implant company in Puerto Rico. My senior year of college, I ended up doing research on senior design, and I liked it. My undergraduate supervisor said I had what it takes to go to grad school and got a NSF Scholarship to do that. Originally I was working on a computational project, but I really didn’t like it. I did it for a year or two, got the paper out. But at the time, the field was really moving more into working with cells. I was one of my advisor’s first students to work with cells. It probably helps that I’m a real nerd, because I just fell in love with research. This stuff is really cool to me!
Interviewer: So tell us about connecting with Georgia Tech.
García: We were very fortunate that Michelle’s advisor was friends with Bob Nerem, the founding director of the Petit Institute. So, we were able to meet Bob and apply at Georgia Tech. We had our interviews and got hired after we finished our postdocs.
Interviewer: You spent 10 years directing Georgia Tech’s Bioengineering Interdisciplinary Graduate Program. What can you tell us about that experience, and how it helped prepare you for your role as executive director?
García: I learned how to manage a very large group of faculty from many different schools. So, I had to make sure we had good interactions with the different school chairs, even though it was clear early on that not all the schools understood the benefits and strengths of bioengineering, yet. I worked very hard on that message – explaining how the partnership is critical. I needed the support of all the school chairs, and the College of Engineering, to move the bioengineering program forward. Mainly, that experience showed me that you have to listen to people, and you have to create partnerships. It’s getting everyone to line up and identify the things we care about. So I think the experience of managing the Bioengineering Program certainly helped me a lot in this transition.
Interviewer: Tell us about taking on this job a year ago? What was it like, once you’d made that transition?
García: (chuckles) I have to say, the first six months were rough – like drinking from three firehoses! I think part of it was naïve surprise. I’d been here 20 years and considered myself one of the key contributors to the institute. I know both former directors very well, as friends and collaborators. But you know, it’s very different seeing how the sausage is made. My respect for my predecessors, Bob Nerem and Bob Guldberg, has only grown.
Interviewer: So, what was your agenda? What did you set out to accomplish at first?
García: Well, I tried to talk to everybody and get an understanding of what are the things that are working well, and what are the things that are not working as well. The stuff that’s working well, we’re just going to continue supporting it and I’m not going to mess with that. I’m going to put my energy into the stuff that isn’t working as well. And there were other challenges. I made a lot of commitments that I intended to fulfill. For example, I was president of the Society for Biomaterials. Also, I think my lab was a little freaked out because they thought I wasn’t going to be around that much. But they understand now that I’m still here and very much engaged. My research program is a very high priority.
Interviewer: As a leader, and as a basketball fan, you recognize the value of a strong support network – the people who dish out the rock so the shooters can score the points. Tell us about your support network since becoming executive director.
García: It’s been amazing – Georgia Tech administration, my faculty and lab colleagues, school chairs, staff, trainees, my family and friends. Fantastic. Very positive. One of the things that has made the job great is that we have a very strong leadership structure here – associate director Nick Hud and assistant director Michelle Wong have been tremendous. And I think we have the best staff on campus, and that’s part of the reason I enjoy this job so much.
Interviewer: I’ve heard you discuss the importance of building self-confidence among trainees – grad students and postdocs – who are really just beginning their research careers. Tell us a little more about that, and the role it plays in research.
García: Well, as researchers, if we’re not self-confident we’re not going to be successful. You have to pitch your ideas, you have to pitch what you do. You have to sell it. But there is a line between self-confidence and arrogance. You never want to be arrogant, but you always want to be self-confident.
Interviewer: The field your trainees are entering today isn’t the field you entered more than 20 years ago. There’s been so much change.
García: Everything evolves, right? One of the things I’ve really enjoyed in my 20 years as a PI is that the research we do now is very different from what we did 20 years ago, and it’s even very different from what we did five years ago. Personally, that’s how I stay excited, by continuing to learn. But the field has matured a lot. The competition now is significantly more stiff than it was when I was a postdoc. At the same time, I think there is a bigger realization, particularly in biology and medicine, of what engineering can bring to the table. I think there are more opportunities to do interdisciplinary work. Science as a whole has exploded in the last 10 years. I think there are great opportunities out there.
Interviewer: You brought up the thrill of continuing to learn. Let’s follow up on that. What else excites you about this work today?
García: I think the emphasis on scaling up and cell manufacturing, the work of the CMaT (NSF Engineering Research Center for Cell Manufacturing Technologies) is very exciting. It’s going to revolutionize medicine. But we have to make it more affordable. Something that costs $400,000 to treat a patient is not going to have a broad impact. But I think we have tremendous potential to change that with the research we’re doing now, and I’m excited about that.
Interviewer: The core of the Petit Institute’s mission is to accelerate and facilitate bioengineering and bioscience research. Though it’s a fairly broad objective, how do think we’re doing, generally speaking?
García: I think we do that very well at the individual faculty researcher level. But along those lines, we want to think big – how do we position the Petit Institute to really be the international leader in this area? I’ve spent a lot of time looking at commercialization and translation, and that’s an area we can definitely improve. To be honest, for all the great discoveries that we have here, and innovations, if they’re never translated, they’re not going to be of much use to people, and they’ll have limited impact. We don’t want things to be an academic exercise, we want them to have an impact on society. That’s where I’m thinking big. There are times when people might say, “you’re not going to be able to do that.” I say to that, “tell me why?” Because we’ll find a way around it. We’ll solve those problems.
Interviewer: You keep saying “we.” It obviously takes a team, and as your old friend and colleague, Bob Nerem, is so fond of saying “research is a people business.” What does that mean to you?
García: That means it takes a lot more than me. I don’t want to dictate the research direction the Petit Institute should take. That’s what the faculty and the trainees are for. My job is really to facilitate that. My research is just one piece of the whole research enterprise here. But Bob is right. That’s how science is done. As for me, interacting with my trainees and having that discussion back and forth is what I love most. It’s never one person with one idea. It’s the multiple interactions with people. That’s what makes it all work.
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