An Interview with Scientist and Administrator, Dr. Ravi Bellamkonda

1. How would you describe your experience as a professor and researcher at Georgia Tech?

Dr. Bellamkonda described his many roles at Georgia Tech as uniquely special. He emphasized his job is much more than just teaching, research and getting funding. The role of a professor entails the service you do for the University and the community you help to build. Also, he explained how Georgia Tech is a very permissive place for those who want to chart their own way, stating how his role as a professor at Georgia Tech has expanded his opportunities.
He indicated that one of his proudest accomplishments at Tech was helping to initiate the Inventure Prize, which was designed to serve as an opportunity for students to be celebrated and recognized for their ideas and inventions.
2. What characteristic trait can you identify that has contributed to your success?

Some of the characteristics traits Dr. Bellamkonda mentioned that have been key to his success are empathy, the ability to genuinely connect with people, and having a “thick-skin” about not being afraid to fail.

3.Name two of your mentors and why?

Two of Dr. Bellamkonda’s mentors are his Ph.D. advisor at The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the late Pierre Galleti and Robert Nerem, Ph.D. He also stated how Dean May contributed a lot to his success at Georgia Tech.

4. Do you plan to continue in your current research concentration trend in neuroscience even after moving to Duke University?

Dr. Bellamkonda plans to continue in his current research which is in the neuroscience field. He stated that Duke was very kind to allow him to continue with his current research along with the tremendous support he is receiving from his research lab with 90% of the lab moving with him to Duke.

5. Who/what will you miss most about our department?

Dr. Bellamkonda will miss his colleagues, students and staff of the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory. Right from student advising, to finance, to the people who directly work with him. Although his loyalties may soon lie elsewhere, he is quick to admit how he believes that Tech has the best Biomedical Engineering program in the country. He said he will miss the complexity and culture of the job of being Chair and he said he will miss the challenges of the job of being the Joint Chair at the medical school at Emory and the Biomedical Engineering School here at Georgia Tech. He stated how the Chair lives in “two different worlds” with the challenges and joys of learning how to navigate both sides as Chair of the department. The fact that the joint BME department between Emory Medical School and Georgia Tech’s BME school worked so well was very special.

6.Where do you see the department in the future?

He believes that the department is very stable and that we will continue to innovate in how we teach our students, that the faculty will do well and we will continue to attract the best talent from everywhere. He believes the Georgia Tech BME department sets the standards for many other BME departments.

7. Is there a possibility of more collaboration between Duke, GT and Emory due to this transition?

He says there certainly is a possibility of more collaboration between Duke, GT, and Emory with respect to cellular engineering. He explained how the collaboration of the University of Miami, Georgia Tech and Duke in the cell therapy led by Dr. Roy will serve as an opportunity or “vehicle” for collaboration between Duke, Georgia Tech and Emory University.

8. What are your favorite hobbies?

Dr. Bellamkonda loves to play tennis and read Harry Potter type science fiction, the Bartimeus Trilogy, and the Nicolas Benedict fiction.

9. What have been some of your greatest challenges as a Chair for a world class biomedical engineering department?

He believes that challenge and opportunity go together, describing how the challenge of having 1300 BME students and delivering a high quality student experience with 30 faculty was a challenging problem logistically and pedagogically, but it is accomplished at GT. He said that having one department and one culture when you have two university systems is a challenge and we have made a lot of progress but there is still more work to do.

10. How do you advice students to find their niche in the department?

He said there are numerous opportunities through research and entrepreneurship associated with the department. Also he stated that students should prove to themselves that they can do well academically because he believes we all have the potential to do so. After this, he said to sample a set of activities that you find invigorating, not just things that would look good on your CV. He stated how even if it is work, it shouldn’t feel like work. He says he guarantees students will find enjoyable opportunities within the department if they actively seek them out.

11. What advice do you have for undergraduate BME trying to get into research?

He stated that it requires persistence, a little bit of luck, networking and more persistence to land a research assistantship position. He said faculty typically get so many emails in a day that it is hard to respond to those that are not time-sensitive, urgent and those whose source cannot be easily recognized.

12. Did you see yourself in your current position as an undergraduate?

He said that he absolutely did not see himself as a professor considering how he was good in a lot of things but not an “ace engineer or math student” as an undergraduate. He said that he always tried to do things that were at the border between what he knew how to do and what he didn’t know how to do. He said doing a Ph.D. for him was like that. He stated how he saw himself in industry and he got an interest in the fact that experiments could be designed to discover new ideas that no one else knows, which is a powerful concept. This idea led him to do research and to become a professor.

13. Did you aspire for this position?

He said he wanted to make a difference but he did not know what that meant. He said there are many paths to life which will materialize. He said that a lot of people, because they are afraid of failure, say no more than yes.
He said that the chair of the BME department is a special job and this department is a very special department, and he felt he could help this department. He said the Dean’s job was somewhat complicated because he loves the position here at Georgia Tech and being the Dean at a good school gives him the opportunity to go further with the position. In many ways he is interested to see whether the successes we have had in the department can they be replicated on a larger scale. He has translated and intertwined his role as a researcher into his chair position and his position as being Dean of Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering
Basically he explained how he sees himself running experiments even though he is occupying an administrative position, and wants to try to improve the quality of life of people.

14. Do you see connection developing between the Duke medical school and BME students at Tech?
He believes that we should strive to learn more about our connections between us and Emory’s Medical School. He said that proximity is a challenge. He stated how there are already good connections between us and the Medical School at Emory such as the classes taught by Dr. Lam and Dr. Ackerman, the Health-Connect and Health-Reach classes, and clinically driven student design classes. He stated how you don’t want to do something for the sake of doing something. He said “you always want to ask, ‘is this the best way to enhance our student experience and learning?’”, so far the answer has been we don’t really need a lot of connections with Duke or other places, since we have many opportunities to collaborate with Emory and with Morehouse.

15. Dr. Bellamkonda responded when asked about the complication associated with BME graduates getting into medical school due to GPA’s and other issues.

He said that the purpose of an undergraduate degree for him personally is to challenge and teach skills of synthesis, problem solving and teamwork. The purpose in life is to be a great doctor to help people. If you redefine the problem to say what gives me the skill set to be a great doctor, then you answer that a Biomedical Engineering degree is a great thing to do. He said that a BME degree will help you be a better a doctor.

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