Trained as an aerospace engineer, Bob Nerem found a passion for bioengineering after being recruited by NASA to help them better understand how launch and re-entry from orbit affects the human body, consulting for a NASA-funded project on the effects of vibration on human physiology – knowledge the space program desperately needed. Prior to that, Nerem had a successful career as a young professor at The Ohio State University where he taught aeronautics. After spending the better part of 1970 at Imperial College London in the Physiological Flow Studies Unit, Nerem returned to Ohio State and was able to refocus his work and move his research to the Department of Veterinary Physiology and Pharmacology at Ohio State in order to purse bioengineering. Later, Nerem would find a home at Georgia Tech where he would help build their bioengineering program and inspire the next generation of engineers.
Bob Nerem is Institute Professor Emeritus in the George W. Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering and Parker H. Petit Distinguished Chair for Engineering in Medicine Emeritus at Georgia Institute of Technology. He has been active in bioengineering for more than forty years and is considered a key pioneer in the field.
At the time in most professors’ careers when they are working to climb the ranks in academia, Nerem was focusing on learning a new field of research. “The shift from aerospace engineering to bioengineering was challenging. During that time, it was very hard for an engineer to get a grant from NIH,” Nerem indicated. But he was ultimately funded to begin a new line of research and jumpstart his bioengineering career.
Even from the start, when Nerem had aeronautics in his sights, he knew he wanted to pursue a career in academia. He considered working in industry, but his heart was in academics. Nerem enjoys creating opportunities for students and helping them find their passions.
The focus of Nerem’s research for the past 25 years has been on tissue engineering and regenerative medicine, which holds the promise of regenerating or replacing damaged tissues and organs within the body. One of his research projects includes the development of a blood vessel substitute for use in bypass surgery. Nerem’s most recent work has focused on how stem cell technology can be used in medical therapies.
Nerem sees a very bright future for the field of bioengineering. “It is going to be important in so many ways,” said Nerem. Twenty-five years from now, Nerem predicts, only half of what is currently done in bioengineering will be medically related. The rest will be related to global challenges such as food, energy, and the environment. “There are so many things that you can do with this education.” Time will uncover more utilization of the field.
When asked about advice he would give to prospective engineering graduate students, Nerem said, “The purpose of your doctoral program is not to narrow your research interests due to the focused nature of your Ph.D. project, but rather to give you a strong foundation in conducting independent research. Select an advisor whose research is an area of interest, but also one that you can work comfortably with for the next 5 years.” Nerem understands the business of working with people. He added, ”People will never remember what you said, but they will remember how you made them feel.”
Bob Nerem was instrumental in the formation of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering (AIMBE), co-chairing with Art Johnson the task force that led in 1991 to the establishment of AIMBE. He then served as founding president of the Institute. He is an elected member of the National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine, and has received countless accolades for his work.