Remembering Robert M. Nerem, Georgia Tech’s Founding Father of Bioengineering and Bioscience
Bob Nerem often said, “research, like life, is a people business,” and he spent most of his 56-year academic career proving the point. Nerem would enthusiastically strike up a conversation with the undergrad or the fellow bioengineer or the restaurant waiter, asking questions, connecting on a personal level. An internationally-renowned pioneer in bioengineering and biomedical research and education, Nerem’s most memorable trait was probably his sincere affability.
“Bob always had time to talk to anyone, always had a kind word, a funny story or witty remark – he positively influenced thousands in our community by showing that he genuinely cared about everyone,” said Andrés García, executive director of the Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Bioscience at Georgia Tech, remembering Nerem, the founding director of the Petit Institute who died Friday, March 6, at 82.
García called Nerem a mentor to many, at Georgia Tech and in the broader bioengineering community.
“He impacted my career more than anyone else, as a role model and a friend,” García said. “He showed me how to be successful while celebrating others at the same time.”
He seemed to know everyone and everything about the world he inhabited, noted Ross Ethier, professor of biomedical engineering at Georgia Tech.
“There wasn’t a promising postdoc, a potential junior recruit, or a senior hire who was not known to Bob,” said Ethier. “He was at the center of a vast network of leaders who shaped the field of biomedical engineering by identifying and promoting the very best talent. Bob was immensely helpful to me personally. We will probably never know how many people he mentored over his career, but I’m sure it was in the thousands, a true testament to his impact and tireless work for the broader community.”
It usually didn’t matter if a new hire was part of the research enterprise or a supporting player – for years, fresh employees at the Petit Institute would receive a copy of Nerem’s “Rules of Life: The Planet Earth School” (often from Nerem himself). These were 15 maxims (listed in full after this story) he’d gathered, some very familiar, some conjured by Nerem from piecemeal sources, or his own imagination. He wrote them all down after his students banded together and told him to preserve, “those various rules you keep on spouting off,” Nerem told his audience upon receiving the prestigious National Academy of Engineering (NAE) Founder’s Award in 2008.
Nerem spent the last 33 years at Georgia Tech, including 15 years (1995 to 2009) as the founding director of the Petit Institute. He began his career at Ohio State University (where he earned his Ph.D. in mechanical engineering in 1964) in the Department of Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering. But before long, he was focusing on the effects of launch vibrations on astronaut physiology, “which opened the window on a whole new world, that of biology and medicine,” Nerem told his NAE audience.
Though he continued teaching aerospace engineering, he started applying his engineering knowledge to studying blood flow and its role in disease processes – his entry into the world of interdisciplinary research and biomedical engineering. Eventually he delved into cell biology, molecular biology, tissue engineering, and stem cell technology.
“Bob was, in many ways, one of the fathers of tissue engineering,” noted Barbara Boyan, dean of the College of Engineering at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Boyan met Nerem when he was at the University of Houston, where he chaired the Department of Mechanical Engineering following his stint at Ohio State, and Boyan was at Rice University. After moving to Georgia Tech in 1987, Nerem recruited Boyan, who became his deputy director in GTEC (the Georgia Tech/Emory Center for the Engineering of Living Tissues), where she saw, “firsthand, his incredible generosity. He freely gave of his ideas and support to anyone who was willing to work hard,” Boyan said, adding, “Most of us attempting to use stem cells to generate tissues to repair and regenerate defects owe Bob for setting the stage.”
Bob Guldberg, who followed Nerem and preceded García as director of the Petit Institute, acknowledged, “Bob is recognized as one of the key leaders who created the bioengineering field, but I think he valued his impact on people more. I’ve lost count of the people who have a story about something Bob did or said or taught them that changed the course of their career, and I’m no exception.”
“He was an amazing mentor and friend to me at every stage of my career, and it was my great honor to follow in his huge footsteps,” added Guldberg, now executive director of the Phil and Penny Knight Campus for Accelerating Scientific Impact at the University of Oregon.
There are researchers all over the world who have been influenced in some way by Nerem. When he left Georgia Tech to join the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco, Todd McDevitt said it was difficult to say goodbye to his friend and mentor, but he left well prepared and schooled in the Nerem way.
“Bob viewed it as his responsibility to create opportunities for others to advance their professional development and acquire leadership skills, often before you thought you were ready,” said McDevitt, one of the nation’s leading stem cell researchers. “I try to emulate Bob's approach of creating opportunities for my trainees without telling them what to do so as to cultivate their self-confidence.”
As part of the core group of bioengineering/biomedical engineering forerunners at Georgia Tech (along with Ajit Yoganathan, Don Giddens, and others), Nerem established an interdisciplinary culture at the Petit Institute that Guldberg said, “taught us all how to tackle grand challenges in life sciences and human health.”
Nerem was the leading figure from the bio-community in the creation of what became known as the Petit Institute, working nimbly with faculty colleagues and university administration to develop a sustainable interdisciplinary bioengineering/bioscience research enterprise.
“Bob was one of the first faculty members I met when I came to Georgia Tech, and I liked him from the start,” said former Georgia Tech President Wayne Clough, who arrived on campus in 1994. “He was a leader in helping us develop the Georgia Tech-Emory biomedical engineering program, and was the key to our winning GTEC from the National Science Foundation. “I always felt lucky to have known him and call him my friend.”
Mike Johns, who arrived at Emory University to lead the Robert W. Woodruff Health Sciences Center, was already familiar with Nerem and said he was the go-to guy when discussions began for a new biomedical engineering department that would link public Georgia Tech and private Emory. “I’ll never forget the day we were riding the escalator together at the Atlanta airport and started talking about BME,” recalled Johns. “Bob was so enthusiastic, and he was the key at Georgia Tech to making it happen.”
Twenty years later, the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory University is a rare public education-private education entity, and is ranked among the top BME departments in the nation.
Working with a leadership team that included Yoganathan and Giddens, Nerem became what García called, “the architect of the bioengineering and bioscience community at Georgia Tech. Bob’s vision and leadership established formal relationships between Georgia Tech and the Emory University School of Medicine in the fledgling bioengineering space.”
Nerem’s vision, leadership, and influence extended beyond the lab or the campus. He co-founded the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering (AIMBE) as well as the Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine International Society (TERMIS), and was a powerful voice in the bioengineering section of the National Academy of Engineering (which elected him as a member in 1988). Additionally, said Boyan, “he championed women and underrepresented minority faculty and students for leadership positions whenever and wherever he could.”
His interest in leveling the field for everyone resulted in creation of the program that Nerem was proudest of later in his career – Project ENGAGES. Established in 2013 at Georgia Tech and headquartered at the Petit Institute, ENGAGES (which stands for Engaging New Generations at Georgia Tech through Engineering and Science) is a high school education program for underrepresented minority students.
High school students from partner schools in Atlanta are immersed, year-round, into university lab environment to work on research projects and participate in enrichment programs. Nerem co-founded the program with Manu Platt, associate professor in the Coulter Department and a Petit Institute researcher, who said of Nerem, “he sees his mission and his job as making young people’s dreams come true, whether they were cognizant of their dreams or not.”
So far, more than 130 Project ENGAGES students have completed the program and moved onto some of the best universities in the nation.
“There aren’t enough words to explain the direct impact Bob has made on the next generation students through Project ENGAGES,” said Petit Institute Education Outreach Manager Lakeita Servance, who is the day-to-day director of Project ENGAGES. “He forever changed the trajectory of these students’ lives. His legacy will continue to live on through Project ENGAGES.”
Nerem retired as director of the Petit Institute in 2009, when Guldberg (who Nerem had recruited to Tech years earlier) took on the role. But this wasn’t your typical retirement. Nerem was still a fixture at the Petit Institute, coming into his office on the first-floor faculty wing. His desk was a cityscape of paper piles and books, and it was typical to see him at his desk, across from a visiting student or faculty member. And if you didn’t go to see Nerem, he would come find you. He was a frequent guest in staff offices at the Petit Institute, stopping by with a fresh cup of coffee (in which the coffee-cream ratio was about 50-50).
This was his comfort zone, the institute, his happy place, and he was a familiar presence in its familiar halls. Nerem was proud of the Petit Institute building, and its open design fostering collaboration, the 24-foot-high ‘Cell Wall’ mural by artist Karen Stoutsenberger, paneled images that bring to life the structural makeup of the bio-molecular world. He always considered the atrium and its coffee shop, its inviting tables and couches, “such an important element of this place and who we are.”
“The design of this building has fostered the interactive, collaborative culture and sense of community we wanted,” Nerem once said, looking around at the human buzz in the atrium on a busy weekday. “Look at this. What did I tell you? Research is a people business.”
With the responsibilities of full-time management behind him, Nerem, who had been known alternatively as “Uncle Bob” and “Big Bad Bob” by his colleagues, had settled permanently into the former role, though he remained an outspoken advocate for regenerative medicine, sending strong messages to elected leadership. In his years, he became a national voice for research integrity (co-authoring a proposal in the high-impact journal Nature in February 2019, calling for the creation of a U.S. advisory board for research integrity).
After retiring as director, he held the Parker H. Petit Distinguished Chair for Engineering in Medicine and Institute Professor Emeritus, staying active at Georgia Tech, traveling the country and the world, participating in various leadership roles on different boards and councils, attending meetings and conferences as an invited guest or speaker, often accompanied by his wife Marilyn.
He had multiple extracurricular affiliations around the world, virtually all of them related to advancing bio-research or education in some fashion or another. Nerem was a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Council of Arterioscleroris, the American Heart Association, the American Physical Society, and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. Elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1988, he served on its council from 1998 to 2004. He was also elected to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences and was a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Scientists, and recognized on an international level, as an Honorary Fellow of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in the United Kingdom, and was a member, honorary or otherwise, of the Polish Academy of Sciences, Japan Society for Medical and Biological Engineering, and Swedish Royal Academy of Engineering Sciences.
For many years, Nerem and his wife presided over the Regenerative Medicine Workshop at Hilton Head in South Carolina, an annual spring gathering of some of the world’s leading researchers – and an excuse for Nerem to connect with them on a personal level, because families were always encouraged to attend. The goal was for the investigators to roll up their sleeves and talk shop, and grad students to network, while families enjoyed the island, and evenings were spent building friendships. At Hilton Head, for two decades, the Nerem’s cultivated an atmosphere that fostered many lasting professional and personal relationships.
And the awards and honors came. But two in particular really stood out for Nerem. One of them, the Nerem International Travel Award (appropriate because, as McDevitt said, "traveling is his favorite pastime."). The idea, Nerem said, “is to get the student out of his or her familiar surroundings, to really experience research in another lab, another setting, sharing their work while learning techniques from other experts in other parts of the world.”
In other words, it was all about making connections.
Then last year the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) introduced the Robert M. Nerem Education and Mentorship Medal, an annual award. Ethier led the effort at ASME’s Bioengineering Division. The medal was first awarded in 2019, to a longtime friend of Nerem’s, Roger Kamm, professor of biological and mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. And like almost everyone else who ever knew Bob Nerem, it’s Rule No. 6 on Nerem’s list that stood out most: People will remember not what you said, but only how you made them feel; strive to make a difference in the lives of others.
“Bob epitomized the traits to strive for as educators and mentors,” said Kamm. “Bob had the unique ability to connect with everyone he met, because he was genuinely interested in each individual as a person. He led us, inspired us, mentored us, and most of all, was a dear friend and role model.”
Bob Nerem, who lived in Stone Mountain, is survived by Marilyn, his wife of more than 40 years; his children, Steven Nerem and Nancy Nerem Black; Marilyn’s children, Christy Maser and Carol Wilcox; and multiple grandchildren. A celebration of his life is being planned for the near future.
“Bob’s love of family and friends was infectious,” said García, professor in the Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering. “And another thing I always admired about Bob is, he did it his way. In rising to the top, he made sure that everyone rose with him.”
Bob Nerem’s Rules of Life
- There are no such things as mistakes, only lessons, i.e., a series of learning experiences; growth is through a series of such experiences, a process which involves both successful and unsuccessful experiments.
- An unsuccessful experiment does not represent failure, it is just a learning experience; often one learns more from these than from successes; apply the lessons of today so as to make yourself a better person tomorrow.
- Always be open in the widest possible way to encountering a new person, to a new opportunity, as these represent new teachers, new learning experiences; “leave the screen door (to the outside world) unlatched,” you never know who or what will walk in.
- If you encounter a closed door, simply look for another door that might be open; life is filled with a lot of paths and doors to walk through, do not waste time on a door which is closed, let the “rock” in your path be a “stepping stone.”
- Your life is up to you; at birth you were provided a “canvas” onto which you have the opportunity to “paint your life”; take charge of your life and the “painting of this picture,” if you do not someone or something else will.
- People will remember not what you said, but only how you made them feel; strive to make a difference in the lives of others.
- Remember that the cup is always half full, never half empty, but remember that the only cards you can play are the ones that you were dealt.
- Look for the good in people, try to imagine the world as it seems to the other person.
- Never, never worry about something over which you have no control.
- Whatever happens, place the least dramatic interpretation on the event, the incident, and/or whatever is said.
- Never have expectations, only hopes, and welcome each and every new day for “each dawn is a new beginning”; each day presents new opportunities and as has been said, “a day spent without real enthusiasm, is an opportunity lost.”
- Love yourself, make peace with who you are and where you are at this moment in time, be willing to let go of the life that you had planned so as to have the life that waits you.
- Listen to your heart; if you cannot hear what it is saying in this noisy world, make time for yourself, enjoy your own company, let your mind wander among the stars.
- Do not let your preoccupation with reality stifle your imagination; if someday, why not now, even though the impossible may take a while.
- Finally, life's journey is not to arrive at the grave safely in a well-preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways, worn out, shouting—holy cow, what a ride!
Memorials can be made to Project ENGAGES, Georgia Tech Foundation, 760 Spring Street NW, Suite 400, Atlanta, GA, 30368. Or, you can do so online. Put specify "Project ENGAGES in the "Other Designation” field. There is also a "This gift is a memorial" checkbox where you can indicate that the gift is in memory of Bob Nerem.
Communications Officer II
Parker H. Petit Institute for
Bioengineering and Bioscience