Spotlight: Yogi Patel

Yogi Patel says he doesn’t believe in luck, but considers himself lucky. Why? Because Mr. Patel – a Ph.D. student in the Parker H. Petit Institute for Bioengineering & Bioscience – has worked for the past several years in the lab of Dr. Robert Butera. Patel says working with Dr. Butera gave him the opportunity to find out what type of research excites him and identify the direction in life that he wants to pursue after he finishes his Ph.D. Patel’s research spans a number of disciplines, and his experience is just as diverse – he has taught an undergraduate course for two and a half years, has taught various labs, and has even conducted research in fields outside of his thesis. And his work has not gone unnoticed: in November 2014, he received a Young Investigator Award at the BRAIN Grand Challenges Conference held by the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society in Washington, D.C.

Patel is mainly interested in researching the autonomic functions of the brain and how the brain communicates with different organs – in particular, how the brain regulates the liver to raise or lower glucose levels. His research involves interfacing with peripheral nerves in order “to understand what the liver is doing at any given point.” Interestingly, Patel’s background is not in engineering at all; he attended Mercer University in Macon, where he studied biochemistry, math, and computer science. Why, then, pursue a Ph.D. in engineering? In Patel’s words, he was “trying to find a way to take the understanding of the life sciences world that I had … and then add engineering into it to come up with ways of getting things to be useful for the real world.”

Although he is passionate about his research of the brain, a topic he says will interest him for a lifetime, Patel has a vision of the future that does not just end in the lab: he wants to run his own medical device startup. Patel is a fellow in the Technological Innovation: Generating Economic Results (TI:GER) program through the Scheller College of Business. His team, which consists of Emory law students, Tech MBA students, and himself, has come up with an innovative way of glucose monitoring for diabetic pets. The end goal is to apply this technology to humans – but that goal is extremely difficult to accomplish due to the FDA regulatory process and the capital needed to fund such a project.

Regardless, Patel is intent on continuing the project that began in the TI:GER competition and eventually translating it into a device for humans. In the meantime, Patel says the pet device will generate revenue so the product can eventually be developed for use in humans and give his team a better understanding of how the device works.

In addition to continuing to modify and improve his team’s medical device, Patel wants to pursue a career in academia. He says there is a certain euphoria he experiences when teaching and is “obsessed with the way that research works in a lab environment.” This obsession translated into mentoring undergraduates who are interested in research; to date, he has mentored around 11 students. Patel wants to teach at the post-graduate level at a place like Georgia Tech or Emory, both R01 institutions. R01 institutions receive funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), thus allowing Patel to continue his work in research while teaching.

Patel’s many interests are not purely confined to the world of bioengineering, however. He says if you want to find him outside the lab, he will probably be biking or working on open source software and hardware development. Although most people might consider the latter work, Patel has “fallen in love” with the open source world and considers it a relaxing pastime. Patel is also passionate about reading biographies and autobiographies in order to understand how people think; in fact, he has read the Steve Jobs biography at least six times.

Reflecting on his accomplished academic and business career, Patel offers the following advice to students: “Really focus on what you are learning at any given point … not necessarily ‘What am I memorizing?’ or ‘What am I doing?,’ but ‘What am I learning?’” He says that everything you learn in your undergraduate education, even the things you believe you’ll never use again, will come up somewhere in your career. So the key is to actively engage with the material you are learning and relate it to all of your other knowledge.

For individuals interested in entering the startup world, Patel says there are two key elements one has to master to be successful. First, “accept that you know nothing about the world besides what your product is” – in other words, don’t lock yourself into one interpretation of your device or end user. Second, Patel offers a revision of the popular Steve Jobs quote, “Stay hungry, stay foolish”. “In the startup world,” according to Patel, “you literally have to starve.” In order to succeed, you must work tirelessly in order to turn your product into something with the potential to change the world.