Faculty Highlight: Juergen Hahn

The Philosophy of a Doctorate Degree

BME Faculty Highlights Series
Professor Juergen Hahn and Student Mentoring

This article is the fifth in a series aimed at spotlighting the faculty in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at RPI. In this series, we will highlight biomedical research areas, cutting edge engineering techniques, student and trainee successes, as well as the broader societal impacts of the work in BME. Stay tuned each month of this academic year for more features, and follow us on Twitter @RPI_BME (https://twitter.com/RPI_BME).

Every doctoral degree earned through Biomedical Engineering is a Doctorate in Philosophy rather than in science or engineering. But, talk to Ph.D. holders and you’ll likely get as many different philosophical explanations of what that means as you have doctorates. If you ask Juergen Hahn, Professor and Department Head of Biomedical Engineering, he will tell you that, the philosophy he aims to impart on each of his doctoral trainees is one that centers on establishing a “foundation for life-long learning.”

Hahn, whose research focuses on techniques for systems engineering and analysis and the application of these techniques to biochemical systems, emphasizes to his trainees that, while the biochemical and biomedical areas of application are important to further knowledge in those fields, it is the skill sets they build in systems analysis and modeling that will propel each of their individual professional successes. And, after having trained and successfully placed ~20 Ph.D. graduates he’s mentored in his career, Hahn can say that this focus on education and training, in addition to research, has served his research group and its alumni well.

Emphasis on the education and training mission has led to success of Hahn’s mentees in various engineering positions, both within and outside of what most think of as biomedical engineering. Graduates of his research group have been recruited and hired in a wide range of engineering and technical industries – from aerospace and defense (General Dynamics, Travis (Gus) Omer) to petroleum products (Exxon, Mitch Serpas), and from pharmaceuticals (GlaxoSmithKline, Loveleena Bansal) to more “traditional” academic research (Villanova, Zuyi Huang). Even years after graduation, Hahn continues to mentor former students, supporting and advocating their evolving professional goals.

Hahn credits this diverse range of professional success to the importance he places on fostering the technical skill sets that are attractive to employers of numerous fields. These include the ability to analyze any system – whether a biochemical pathway, a bioprocessing plant, or healthcare system – to identify problems and needs, formulate systems-level approaches, support their approach with evidence and expertise, and then effectively execute and evaluate their solution. “Employers care that these students know how to formulate and execute a model of a system,” Hahn emphasizes, “instead of just being specialized in the application area of the modeling.”

Hahn also applies his philosophy of research training to the successful NSF-funded Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program that he leads at RPI in Bioengineering and Biomanufacturing, in which undergraduate students selected from applicants around the US live and do research at RPI for 10 weeks over the summer. Now in its 8th year of existence (the program is currently in its 2nd year of a third 3-year span), the REU program boasts an impressive 80% rate of alumni going on to graduate or medical school. Applications for this summer’s REU are due early in March, and Hahn looks forward to another summer of opening the eyes of undergraduates to the many possibilities after they earn their bachelor’s degree.

For graduate and even undergraduate researchers then, Hahn imparts his philosophy of the importance and breadth of research training from day one, impressing upon research trainees that they should take ownership of their projects as soon as they’re ready. Hahn advises students to “realize that you’re doing this [research] for yourself … for your own [personal and professional] development. The sooner you take ownership, the sooner you can take charge of working towards your career goals.”