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Interview of Tyrone Porter by David Zierler on 2020 September 22,Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,College Park, MD USA,www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/44893-1
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In this interview, David Zierler, Oral Historian for AIP, interviews Tyrone Porter, Professor of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin. Porter recounts his childhood in Detroit, and he discusses his recent move to Texas from Boston, and the opportunities afforded to him as he builds a new laboratory. He describes the importance of science fiction in fueling his early interests in science, he describes his undergraduate education at Prairie View A&M University, and he explains the opportunities afforded him to pursue his academic interests at a Historically Black University. Porter discusses his interests in engineering and computer science and how he became fascinated with the nascent field of biomedical engineering. He explains his decision to pursue a PhD at the University of Washington, and describes some of his impressions moving to a nearly all-white environment there. Porter discusses his research under the direction of Larry Crum in acoustics and ultrasound technology, and he explains some of the tensions he felt in balancing the focus of his work on basic science research vs. therapeutically-oriented results. He describes his postdoctoral research integrating membrane disruptive polymers into liposomes with Christy Holland at the University of Cincinnati. Porter explains his developing focus in nanomedicine, and the interest his research sparked in several major pharmaceutical companies. He describes his decision to join the faculty at Boston University, and he weighs the different kinds of impact in fostering diversity that he can have working at a major research university vs. working at a smaller HBCU. Porter notes the many colleagues at BU who have supported his efforts to improve diversity and inclusivity in STEM, and he describes the successes he achieved in setting up a lab and how the field of biomedical engineering had matured over this time. He contextualizes his recent leadership efforts within the Black Lives Matter movement from an academic context, and he describes how these events came to a head in the summer of 2020 and why he has been more committed than ever to ensuring greater and better diversity initiatives in STEM. Porter describes his ongoing work in therapeutic ultrasound research, and at the end of the interview, he describes himself as an “activist scholar” for whom accomplishments in the lab and in advancing racial justice and sensitivity are two aspects of a single career goal.
Okay, this is David Zierler, oral historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is September 22nd, 2020. I’m so happy to be here with Professor Tyrone Porter. Tyrone, thank you so much for joining me today.
I’m so happy to be here. And thanks for the invitation.
Absolutely. So, Tyrone, tell me. I know this is hot off the press. What is your title and institutional affiliation?
So, I’m Professor of Biomedical Engineering at University of Texas in Austin. And just actually started just earlier this year. Relocated from Boston University where I was an Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering.
And what is the Myron L. Begeman Fellowship? What’s that connection to your position?
That’s a fellowship…most of the faculty who are tenured at UT, particularly in the sciences have a professorship or a fellowship in engineering. And it’s…in a lot of ways it’s a discretionary fund in order to support research, new ideas. And so, it’s another way to push new ideas forward that we might have in the laboratory.
And obviously now, you’re in building mode as you just got to Austin. What are your sort of short term goals in terms of getting your whole operation up and running? What are some of the challenges and opportunities that you’re currently facing?
So, as you know, we’re in this COVID pandemic. And so that’s presented unexpected challenges. They’re minimizing presence on campus. There isn’t as much support staff around to actually help with doing renovations to the laboratory space. Or making purchases or at least accepting purchases that have arrived on campus. So, just being able to submit and buy new equipment and buy supplies and get the laboratory equipped. As well as engaging and interacting with new students.
So, coming to campus, talking with graduate students, getting them acclimated to the new lab space. Getting them excited about new research projects, as well as training. My laboratory is experimental in nature. So, coming into the laboratory and training new students in techniques and approaches…they are…it’s unfamiliar for them. Is a huge challenge. And one that I’m still working on trying to figure out the best way to address.
Now are there any aspects of the lab that can be done remotely? Or it’s all hands on, you gotta be physically present in the lab?
[sigh] Yeah. Because we are experimentalists, my laboratory is heavily experimental in nature. And because I just moved, I don’t have much old data to analyze and process.
So, there’s not much data to critically evaluate, review, and analyze statistically. I had anticipated coming and actually acquiring new data. Running and getting momentum on new projects and new ideas. So, a lot of the old data that I had in hand was processed before I actually packed up the laboratory in Boston and moved here.
However, there is an opportunity to write papers. Write manuscripts. So, all the data that we have analyzed…we are in the process of writing manuscripts for that. The other thing is that the interruption in normal lab work does give me time to review the literature. It’s hard to do that under normal operation where I’m also teaching classes. It’s hard to find the time to dive into the literature and see what are new scientific advances and contributions. And to critically analyze the literature and think about new projects. And so, I now have the ability and the time to do that. I’ve been reviewing the literature quite a bit since we moved to Austin.
Now absent the disruptions obviously from the pandemic, to what extent was this project a matter of breaking down the old lab and setting it up anew? Versus sort of, brand new beginning? You know, old lab, old equipment, old data. New lab, new equipment, new projects. Where are you sort of on that spectrum?
No, that’s a good question. I’m much more on the new equipment side. I did not bring very much along with me from Boston. And I have requested funds to purchase new equipment and equip the laboratory with the newest, best equipment that was available in order to do the best experiments possible.
Allow my students to be as creative as possible. And the personnel to be as creative as possible. I’m much more on the side of purchasing new equipment. That was my expectation; that was my anticipation. Another motivation for purchasing new equipment was because we were going to be venturing into new territory.
Some ideas and projects that we were just starting to pursue when I was in Boston. And instead of buying the equipment while I was in Boston, I basically just said I’ll hold off and wait until I get to UT Austin and then make those purchases here. Instead of transporting it from Boston to Austin.
Right. And I wonder what have been some of the technological or computational advances…you know, looking back to your time in the lab say, as a graduate student, right? What have been some of the advances that in technology, in lab equipment, that perhaps are allowing you to ask new research questions? To set up new experiments that might now have been feasible 10-15 years ago?
Yeah. So now, there are a lot more…so my laboratory does a lot of therapeutic ultrasound work. And it has tremendous momentum right now. There is a lot of interest particularly from the clinical side in adopting and translating some of the research. There are new discoveries and findings from the laboratory that we would like to translate to the clinic. That requires therapeutic ultrasound transducers and platforms. And that did not exist when I was a graduate student. We basically had to assemble most of what we utilized. There were some companies that were making high power focused ultrasound transducers back then. There are more companies that are doing that now. But when I was a graduate student there was one or two. So you had to, in a very piecemeal fashion, you had to assemble, pull together waveform signal generators, power amplifiers, oscilloscopes, and transducers. You had to piece all of that together in order to do the experiments. That’s not necessarily the case any longer. You can actually buy turn-key systems and platforms. So, it makes it much easier to just take the system out of the box or have a company that will come and install a platform and give you and your personnel training. Now it’s much easier to really focus more on the experimental design. To really focus on the questions and hypotheses that one might have, as well as identify what are the remaining barriers from a technology or methodological sort of perspective. What are the remaining barriers to translation that we need to address? And so now, we don’t have to worry or put so much focus and emphasis on the technology. Although there still are some needs, particularly for transcranial applications or transcranial ultrasound for brain applications. The state of the art are these hemispherical transducer arrays that have hundreds to thousands of elements in order to spread that energy over a much larger area of the skull and improve penetration through the skull into the brain tissue. Those arrays are still under development. There are very few commercial suppliers of that technology. Additionally, there is a need for monitoring because these procedures are all noninvasive. How does one monitor the ultrasound energy deposition and evaluate ultimately the bioeffect of interest? That has to all be noninvasive. And so, how to integrate all of those components into one system and one platform, but there’s still a lot of work that’s being done to achieve those goals. But in terms of just therapeutic ultrasound in general, maybe more platforms and systems that are out there nowadays that do have the flexibility, the power, the programmability that is desirable for controlled experiments in the laboratory that you can now just take out of the box and set up.
So, it sounds sort of like you’ve taken this as a real opportunity to not only assess your own research agenda, but sort of consider what’s available technologically that you can use to best effect in your new lab.
Absolutely. That was something that I was doing in the months leading to the move and the transition. Calling and talking with these commercial suppliers directly to get a better sense of their capabilities and technologies they had available. To what extent were they actually open to custom design and fabrication for any parts? Many of these companies, they started out very small and so they were…historically they were meeting the needs of the end user. And so, for them, custom engineering is within their wheelhouse.
But they certainly have systems that you can take out of the box and just set up so that a person who maybe is not fundamentally trained in biomedical ultrasound and therapeutic ultrasound…it becomes accessible for them. And they could potentially find somebody like myself or colleagues of mine who can serve as consultants or as collaborators on projects. But we don’t have to build or assemble the systems together for colleagues who are not in acoustics traditionally.
Well, Tyrone, let’s take it all the way back to the beginning. Let’s start first with your parents. Tell me a little bit about them and where they’re from.
My parents are from Cleveland, Ohio. and went to Central State University, which is a Historically Black College and University in Ohio. They earned their undergraduate degrees in math and education. They moved to Detroit and became teachers in the Detroit Public School System. I have two siblings, a brother and a sister. Older brother and a younger sister, so I’m the middle child. I’m the one that’s always getting into trouble.
And I was more than happy to be the rebellious one, I guess. Just within my nature. But yeah, we grew up…you know, both parents were at home. Pretty safe environment on the west side of Detroit and went to really good schools. Renaissance High School was a college preparatory school that my siblings and I, we all went to…we all attended. And then we left there and went to Prairie View A&M University, which is in Texas. It’s actually down the road from UT Austin. It’s straight up 290 headed toward Houston. It’s about an hour and 45 minutes, two hours up the road. I went to Prairie View A&M for a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. I left home when I was 18. And for me, it was probably…for my parents and I, to be honest…it was probably the best decision that I could have ever made. Because we were getting on each other’s nerves. But I think just having that freedom to grow and explore and mature on my own terms, just because of…as I mentioned earlier, my personality. I just had this rebellious streak. And I needed to be in my own space.
I needed to make my own mistakes and have my own successes. And be able to learn from those mistakes and learn from those successes on my own terms. So that was probably the best decision I ever made…leaving home. As well as attending a Historically Black College and University.
That was in itself…was eye opening.
Tyrone, when did you start to get interested in science? Was it early on for you?
It was. I grew up when science fiction movies and television and the special effects were really coming into their own. I mean, they weren’t exactly at CGI level just yet. But we’re talking Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. We’re talking Star Wars. We’re talking Star Trek the Next Generation. We’re talking Star Trek the movies, and not just the television show. And then also computer games and personal computers. You know, having a computer actually at home. Having an Atari system or a Sega Genesis, or a Nintendo. Those were from my youth. That was from when I was, you know, probably the age of like seven all the way through high school. Technology was really becoming much more of an integral part of the home environment. I thrived on that. It was really intriguing to me to try to understand how some of these systems actually worked. And science fiction just fascinated me. You know, seeing a…it’s actually one of the things that got me a little bit interested in biomedical engineering which I’m doing now…watching Dr. McCoy from Star Trek take out some tricorder and scan one of the members of the Enterprise. And do a scan and push another button and then miraculously that person was healed.
He never did a cut or an incision. There wasn’t a beam that came out of his device. He just pressed one or two buttons and this person immediately was better. They were fine. They go back to their duties. And that, you know, just showing that it was an example of…you know, it’s way out there in left field, right?
I mean it was so far from what was possible in the ‘70s and ‘80s…what people were able to do. But it was an example of maybe what you can aspire to do with technology in medicine.
Mm-hmm. Were you a standout student in math and science in middle school and high school? Did those subjects come easy to you?
Yeah…I was fortunate. Um. I do certainly recognize the privileges that I’ve had growing up. Having both parents at home, I think certainly is a privilege. Both of them were in education. So they recognized the time one has to actually invest in teaching young people and also the patience that one has to have when they’re training and working to help their kids understand new concepts. They’ve been formally trained to be teachers. I was further privileged because my father had college degrees in mathematics. I would say, once you get to the middle school level, mathematics is very intimidating. I’m saying this from my own personal experience, but also, just recalling some of my peers’ comments when I was at that age. Middle school, high school…math gets to be somewhat intimidating. It’s very abstract. It’s hard to really visualize what’s going on. Once you introduce fractions, decimals, and for a lot of students, algebra and word problems…a lot of students really struggle with that and it gets to be very intimidating. And if they don’t have someone at home that has the time or the understanding of how to sort of rethink how to present the concept to the child, such that maybe it is a little more…it’s understandable, then the child can get lost. And everything in mathematics in particular, as well as science, builds on…you know, one concept leads to another concept. It’s a logical process. And if you get lost at any of those steps, it’s like watching Westworld if you watch HBO. If you watch any of these shows where you have to literally pay close attention at what’s going on, you could easily get lost. And then you never want to watch the show again.
That’s what happens for a lot of kids. They get lost early on and they lose interest. It’s hard to recapture their interest and their imagination later on. So, I was fortunate to have a parent at home that could explain mathematics. My mom would help us with writing and science and so, I was very, very fortunate to have two parents who were invested in their kids’ education at home.
When you were thinking about college, what were some of your objectives or hopes in focusing on going to a historically Black school?
Uh. So…I had a interest. You know, so I can give a multiple…perspectives on this answer. So, initially I had a interest in going to a Big Ten school. Alright. I’m from Detroit, Michigan. It’s Big Ten country. There are a lot of really good state schools in the Big Ten.
Whether it’s Michigan or Purdue or Michigan State. Um…a lot of really good schools. I had a interest in going to a Big Ten school. And I had talked with my parents about this. But my parents had taken us to their homecoming for Central State so I was exposed to a HBCU environment and culture. I also started talking with some students while I was in high school who were attending Big Ten schools, and just hearing their stories of, you know, being one of the few Black students in their physics class or in their engineering classes did not sound appealing. Detroit is a predominantly Black city. And so, most of my experiences growing up and being in school were at least with 50% Black students in the classroom. That’s in the inner city; that’s not out in the suburbs. That was just…that was just the norm. So, I grew up in an environment where I wasn’t the minority or the one or the few. I was the majority. And so, hearing the experience of some of these other students who, you know, were dealing with the opposite experience in college…I didn’t think that I was at a point in my life where I wanted to have this sense that I have to prove myself to other students from other ethnicities or other races. So, I went to an HBCU and you know, you have…[sigh] you just have this sense of being at ease and being comfortable in your own skin and in a comfortable environment so you can speak your mind freely. You don’t think so much about people passing judgment on you or on the things that you say or do. Um…and if you’re doing well, you’re doing well with other high performing Black students. And so, it just becomes uh…very rewarding, very satisfying, very gratifying. We all pushed each other because we all wanted to be successful. We all wanted to succeed. So, there wasn’t as much competition at that type of an institution. It was much more of, we’re gonna work collectively so that we all can be successful. That was very…for me that was the type of environment that I really want to be in…it sort of enriched the education and enriched the experience of being in college.
I was asking from the perspective of like, high school looking forward? So, now I’ll ask sort of retrospectively when you got to school, you got comfortable, you got the lay of the land. What sort of confirmed your hopes and dreams about what you would find there? And what sort of challenged or shook up some of those assumptions that you’d never know until you were living the experience in real time?
Hmm. You never really know what college is going to be like until you get there.
Um. School Daze, the movie by Spike Lee?
Came out while I was in high school. I might have been a freshman in high school, like 14-15 years old. And also, Different World, which was a spinoff from The Bill Cosby Show on television.
That was…that basically introduced a lot of people, a lot of Americans, to what the experience was like at a HBCU. And so, I saw the movie and the shows and thought that, well maybe that’s what my experience is gonna be like. Um. I got a lot of confirmation. Much of what I saw in the movie and what I saw in Different World was in a lot of ways, the experience that I had. You tend to have these really close knit relationships with the faculty. HBCUs are smaller schools. The class sizes are smaller compared to the larger state schools that I mentioned earlier. So, it’s easier to establish a relationship with the professors. You can actually talk to the professors about things beyond class. You can talk to the professors about what’s going on in the world politically. You can talk to the professors about, what should I expect as I become an adult? And after I graduate from college…what is life like as an adult? What should I plan for? What are some additional things, sort of like the intangibles that I need to work on beyond the classroom to prepare for the real world? To prepare for a professional environment and a professional career. And then asking should I go to graduate school? What should I look for in a graduate school? You saw those types of conversations particularly in Different World. You saw that a little bit in School Daze, but you definitely saw it in Different World. And I had that experience in college. I have taught at predominantly…at larger schools now. Predominantly white majority schools. And you don’t necessarily see the students having that same relationship with their faculty, with the professors, that I saw, or had, at an HBCU. The last thing I’ll mention is my wife went to an HBCU as well. She went to Hampton University which is in Virginia. She had the same, very similar experience. And my brother and sister…we all went to Prairie View A&M. We all had the same experiences. In fact, I just got off the phone earlier today with my former mentor from my years at Prairie View A&M. We haven’t talked much in over 20 years; I graduated in ’96. I just talked to him on the telephone for two and a half hours. I don’t know if I would have that same kind of relationship with a professor if I had gone to a larger state school.
I certainly had it with him. And I could pick up the phone and call him and talk to him anytime I want.
Yeah. Now on the academic side, did you know you wanted to pursue an engineering degree from the get go or that came later on?
I did. While growing up I was part of the Detroit Area Pre-College Engineering Program. It’s known as DAPCEP. It’s still in existence. The program actually gave me exposure to college. There were summer programs at University of Michigan and Michigan State. So, I spent a couple of summers on college campuses talking with current engineering undergraduate students. And just sort of getting a sense of what an engineering curriculum was like. That was giving me inside information to help make an informed decision about what I wanted to major in. I certainly could have majored in probably math or in physics or in computer science. My father also had a hand in my decision. I told him I had a interest in being a software engineer or a computer science major to program computers. And he advised that if I got a degree in electrical engineering, I could program the computers and build the hardware. I could do both. He was right in that regard. So, you know, I had some guidance from my dad. I had guidance from the DAPCEP program, and I had inspiration from what I saw in the movies and in video games.
So, even that early you thought that there was going to be a bio component to your engineering interest? That didn’t come later necessarily?
That came later. That’s a different story.
I had an interest in electrical engineering and software engineering going into college. Certainly, what I saw in the movies made me think that biomedical engineering would be interesting and cool. But it was a younger discipline than electrical engineering. There was not as much information just readily available for a student to read and get introduced to the field. I got introduced to biomedical engineering I believe during my freshman year in undergrad. Physics professor whose name was Professor Fred Wang. He used to bring articles to class. In addition to going through your fundamental, foundational concepts…force equals mass times acceleration, the equations for work and energy…he used to bring in these articles from a Popular Mechanics or Scientific America and pass them around the room just to show it to the students. The intent was to show how some of these things we were learning in class could be applied. And one of the articles was on optical tweezers which are used for isolating particles and cells and moving cells around on a Petri dish or a plate. And I was just fascinated. I was blown away. You know, it was a…just the idea that you could do that without physically touching a cell. The fact that you could have what I perceived to be this invisible force. I was curious as to how that force was being created from just light? When you put your hand on a lightbulb, you don’t feel force. You can see your hand. It reflects off of your hand. So, you can actually visualize it, but you don’t feel the force on your hand. You leave it on a lightbulb long enough, you get heat. But how do optical tweezers, how does this laser actually generate a force so you can, literally, physically move a cell or an object around on a surface? I was just captivated.
And after that I was hooked. I basically said, “I have to get into biomedical engineering.” Now, as I mentioned earlier, biomedical engineering was a relatively new field, so there weren’t many programs and departments around the country. There are many more now. It has certainly proliferated. But this was you know, 1992-93. There were maybe 10 or 12 well established departments and then there were a few centers. I went to University of Washington for grad school, which at that point in time didn’t have a department. It had a Center for Bioengineering that eventually became a department. But it was just a center when it first got started. Once I read the article on optical tweezers, I tried to find any other information that I could on the topic. And I made a decision then that that’s what I wanted to do for my career.
Were there any summer lab opportunities that were available to you as an undergraduate in this field?
Yes. So, National Science Foundation funds Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU). They still do to this day. The Pratt School of Engineering at Duke University had an REU program. They also had an ERC, Engineering Research Center. They also had one of the well-established departments of biomedical engineering. So I was fortunate to spend the summer at Duke University. This was back when Grant Hill was just finishing up undergrad and so, this was when Coach K was just starting to like, win championships consistently.
I think he might have won like, his second one. Well, now he’s got like 10 or something like that. But at that point in time he was still getting established and just starting to consistently recruit the top talent. And that was my first experience on a private university. And that also was eye opening. Um…
In what way?
[sigh] Manicured lawns.
I mean they, for goodness sake…they had a Duke Gardens that you could walk through. I mean, it just seemed like…and then there was an HBCU down the street, which was North Carolina Central in Durham. No manicured lawns.
You know, we’re talking about a huge discrepancy between resources.
And endowment. And alumni donations. And infrastructure. Not saying that the academics weren’t strong at North Carolina Central. It is the infrastructure, the research capabilities, and the buildings that are available that is really different. So, you can certainly go to a smaller school that may not have as many resources and get a truly exceptional education. Case in point, Prairie View A&M University is not UT Austin in terms of infrastructure. But the education at the undergraduate level was phenomenal.
At the graduate level there’s almost no comparison. And so, you certainly see the difference at a Duke University compared to a North Carolina Central or a Prairie View A&M. Given that I was from an HBCU, I was going to seek out HBCUs while on a summer fellowship. And so, I visited North Carolina A&T. I visited North Carolina Central while I was on this summer experience. While I was also on the campus of Duke University, learning about new areas of research and science that could be stimulating. But also keeping my foot in the ground. You know, I need to remain grounded. And that was extremely important to me. It’s still important to me to this day.
Did you go to grad school straight from undergraduate or did you take some time off?
No. I went straight. I did not…knowing me, I did not want to taste money. I didn’t want to have a salary which would allow me to buy all of the gadgets that every young man would ever want.
The big screen televisions and the surround sound system and the crazy car with 500 horses under the hood. Because when you go to graduate school you give all that up [laugh]
That’s right. That’s right.
You give all that up.
And that answers my next question about you know, with an engineering degree, coming into this new growth field of bioengineering, it must have dawned on you that there was a lucrative other option that you could’ve pursued.
Oh, absolutely. I’m not gonna be one to toot my own horn so…I did very well in undergrad. I did very well in undergrad. I mean I graduated with a GPA above 3.85. And so, companies were certainly interested in hiring me. At that time I had an interest in consulting. I had an interest in going to some companies that were working on new technologies. At that point in time, Apple was still kind of experiencing growth into new technologies, new computer platforms and hardware. Automobiles were integrating more computer systems into the automobiles that they were manufacturing. Consulting firms were providing guidance and consultation to optimize business and optimize the bottom line. So, I certainly could’ve graduated, finished, and taken a job that would’ve been very lucrative. With stock options. I made a conscious decision to go to graduate school. I was very interested and very intrigued in biomedical engineering. Not just because it was a new field, but also I had this personal interest in being able to do something that could improve quality of care and quality of life. Working for the companies that I mentioned…it wasn’t necessarily going to improve quality of life from a health perspective. You might make life more convenient…maybe a little easier. Maybe have more luxury items at home. But it wasn’t necessarily going to satisfy my personal interest in improving people’s health standards. And the ability to advance standard of care beyond what it was 30-40 years ago. That was really of interest to me. The last factor in my decision was since biomedical engineering was a relatively new field, there were not that many African Americans in the field.
It still, I would say, holds true to this day in terms of percentage. Blacks are a small percentage and fraction of the student population that gets degrees and in particular goes on to graduate school. But, you know, once again we’re talking early ‘90s. And so, biomedical engineering departments…they actually grew out of established departments. Whether it was chemical engineering or material science and engineering or electrical engineering, biomedical engineering grew out of those departments. And so, you had students that were…there might have been a concentration in biomedical engineering or bioengineering, but there wasn’t necessarily its own department. There weren’t that many African Americans that were in the field. So, I also viewed it as an opportunity to raise awareness.
To be an ambassador. This came out of…when I was in undergrad I would go back to Detroit and serve as an ambassador for college, just in general. Just trying to encourage high school students to finish their high school diploma and go to college. And talk about why that was important and a value. And so, I had already perceived myself as having this ambassador role. I basically took that mindset and said I want to apply it to biomedical engineering. I want to be this face for students who are currently in middle school, you know, completing secondary education and going on to college. I could be this face for them to encourage them to pursue biomedical engineering. And I still…that’s still one of my goals to this day.
Tyrone, just a counterfactual to further delve into your objectives at this point. Let’s say that there was an excellent program in biomedical engineering at Howard University, for example. Would that have been the choice you would have made? Or at this point, were you looking for that new opportunity, even if there was a historically Black program that would’ve been good for you…you were sort of thinking additionally about, like you said, being an ambassador, and this was an opportunity to go to a white majority school where you could accomplish these additional things in the field?
Are you talking about as a professor now?
No. In choosing graduate school.
In choosing graduate school. Um. I probably…so, as I mentioned earlier there are more resources, more infrastructure at a predominantly white majority university. So, I probably would’ve gone to a predominantly white university still.
As an undergrad, if there was a biomedical engineering program or department at a HBCU, I probably would’ve gone to and majored in that degree program at that school. I think North Carolina A&T now has either a BME department or a program that’s under the umbrella of another department.
What were your impressions when you first got to the University of Washington?
[laugh] Um. So, first and foremost I was fascinated by the landscape in Seattle. The Pacific Northwest is just beautiful.
And, you know, I had just…I was graduating from Prairie View A&M University which is outside of Houston. And it’s just all flat plains and prairie land. So, when I got out to Seattle, I was immediately captivated by just the scenery. I intentionally went to an HBCU for undergrad. I recognized that I was gonna probably have to go…in order to reach my academic and career goals, I was going to have to go to a predominantly white school for graduate school. I recognized that and so I did it. But there was culture shock. The size of the classes, for one. I took some classes in anatomy and physiology and some other foundational courses. The class sizes were much larger than I had experienced at Prairie View A&M. So, that in itself was a culture shock. Number two was…it was much more competitive. So, the environment that I had mentioned at Prairie View A&M…we sort of worked collectively and made sure that everyone had some level of success. Some succeeded and did better in classes than the others. But we all worked together hand in hand. I didn’t necessarily get that feeling when I was at University of Washington. So, that was another culture shock. Then number three, there’s just, you know, the obvious thing. I mean there’s just lack of persons of color, and especially Black students that are on campus compared to an HBCU…it’s pretty much an all white school. So, there are certain nuanced differences in the culture, how students engage and interact with each other, that I had to adjust to on the fly. There’s really no training for acclimating to a predominately white environment…there’s no training for that. And I’m not gonna say there’s training necessarily…well…because we worked collectively together at Prairie View, there are senior students helping the younger students get acclimated. That actually did happen. I went to undergrad the summer before my first fall semester as a freshman. That summer program did involve upper classmen who served as mentors and student advisers. You don’t necessarily see that at larger, predominantly white universities. And so, that is a feature that was a real difference at least for me.
Did you perceive the department both in terms of your fellow students and the professors as a place that wanted to be inclusive? That upheld diversity as something that was important and valuable in of itself?
Yeah. Within my department…yes. There were advocates. It was pretty clear and evident within my department. There were a few advocates who were promoting that mindset. Also there was a Minority Science and Engineering Program within the College of Engineering through which I made a lot of friends. It served both undergraduate and graduate students. There also was an Ethnic Cultural Center on campus. And so, there was evidence that diversity was valued. Now, the terminology has expanded and grown. Equity and inclusion…equitable and inclusivity…have been added to the lexicon over the last probably 10-15 years. You know, 20-25 years ago, there was just a focus on diversity. And the focus was, can we recruit, can we attract, can we retain more students of color? First generation students from lower income homes. That was the focus…it was the numbers. That has advanced and evolved and grown to, can we not only recruit these students, but can we embrace them and make sure that they have a valuable, positive experience and achieve all of their goals, right? That wasn’t always the case. The difference here is how you support those students, right? The staff support, the climate, and the culture…not only on campus, but also in the classroom, has to evolve. Has to change. And that change…it requires a change in mindset and focus from ‘Can we at least just get them in the seats?’ We just want to make sure they have a presence and they’re in the classroom, right? The school can check that box and report those numbers. But making sure that they have a positive, equitable experience is completely different. That has become much more of a focus. I only mention that because I did feel like there were elements of that when I was a graduate student at University of Washington. There was the GO-MAP program. I knew the Dean of the Graduate School who, rest her soul, she passed away in this horrific snow accident maybe the year after I graduated. Dean Marsha Landolt. I talked with her on a regular basis. She was completely supportive. I talked to the chair of my department at that point in time. He was completely supportive. There was a…the Dean of Engineering was homosexual. And so, she was very supportive. And so, there were elements. Now to say that it was institutional wide would be a stretch.
To go that far. But in the areas that I studied and lived, there certainly were elements. And I did find support. I did find advocates and champions for me. And they remain advocates to this day.
Tyrone, on the curriculum side of things…because as you mention, bioengineering was sort of a nascent field, what were the expectations in terms of coming into the program with what you had studied before? In other words, because you came in stronger on the engineering side than on the biology side, what kind of expectations were there in terms of prerequisites, getting caught up on biology and chemistry, and things like that? How did that all work out for you in particular and the department as a whole?
Yeah, that’s a really good question. So, the anatomy and physiology course that I took, that was an undergraduate level class. I took that class with premed students, by and large. There were some classes in biological sciences that the department taught at the graduate level that I also took. But I did feel like the department…well, at that point in time, the center…they did a really good job of filling those gaps. Having classes where if you brought a student who had a degree in biology or chemistry, could take a bioinstrumentation class, for example. Or biotechnology class like signals and systems in order to gain some foundation in the more technological side of bioengineering. If you’re like someone like me that’s coming in and hasn’t been in a biology class since 10th grade, then they had a pathway to provide…I wouldn’t necessarily call it remedial, but certain foundational information and knowledge that you’re going to need to go to the much more advanced classes at the graduate level. And so, they had those kinds of pathways. The courses still counted towards the degree, right? It wasn’t like these courses that you needed to take before you could take courses that you could get credit towards the degree. They recognized that because…like you mention, nascent and so young, relatively young…that the curriculum was still sort of going through its evolvement, especially at the graduate level. So, they did a really good job of kind of figuring that out.
How did you go—
It was a bit of a…what I’ll mention, it was a…I had to adjust and adapt because the way students are taught and learn in the biological sciences was different from the way I had been taught in engineering.
The biological sciences are not as quantitative. There’s connections between certain ideas and phenomenon and students in engineering are taught to basically identify those connections. Whereas I felt like in the biological sciences, there’s a lot more of introduction to parts of the body, different systems that you know, you need to survive, and understanding some of the relationship, but not particularly understanding how they work. And that was the difference between the education I got for engineering compared to what I was seeing at the undergraduate level, at least for the biological sciences.
So, it sounds like you know, your experiences, you’re coming in from an engineering perspective and you’re picking up biology. But it sounds like many of your fellow students and professors might have been coming from the other direction?
Um. No, there was a good mix.
There was a mix?
There was a pretty good mix. And I would say there probably were more students that had undergraduate degrees in engineering than in let’s say, biology or in chemistry. And so, I think because of that I suspect they structured the program to assist those students who were coming in with these engineering degrees.
Tyrone, how did you develop relations with your adviser and co-advisers? How did all of that come together for you?
It was actually really natural because my…I had two advisers. One was a primary adviser. One was a…actually I kind of had three advisers. But my primary adviser was Larry Crum. Lawrence Crum. When I came out for a visit, we just kind of hit it off immediately. I think we…just his scientific curiosity, his passion for science, his creativity, the ideas that he had for ultrasound, which were truly from my perspective groundbreaking. They were really revolutionary. Because most of the technology that had been translated at that point was for diagnostic applications. And he truly was…I think we resonated because he had this vision of trying to achieve what Dr. McCoy had. You know, the tricorder device. He wanted to do that with ultrasound, which resonated with me. So, I wanted to be part of that process. My other advisers were Patrick Stayton and Allan Hoffman. Patrick actually came to Prairie View A&M and recruited me. He came down to Texas from Seattle and visited the campus. Talked with me about the department and the program. Met with some of the faculty at Prairie View and then went back to Seattle. And so that’s how he and I got connected. The last person was Allan Hoffman—
Tyrone, was your sense that this recruitment was that there was a diversity component to it? This was a program at Washington?
Yeah. Pat was very intentional. Yeah, this was one of the faculty members that…and still to this day he is an advocate for diversity and equity and inclusivity. So, he very deliberately came down to Prairie View A&M to recruit me. And then he also wanted to establish a relationship with faculty at the school. Both scientifically, professionally, as well as maybe build a pipeline for students to come to the University of Washington for grad school. So, it was very intentional on his part. The last person was Allan Hoffman who is a giant in the field of biomaterials and polymer chemistry. I did not know much about him before I got to the University of Washington, but I’m very thankful that I had an opportunity to learn from him and work with him. And from time to time I still talk with him. But I learned from the three of them…it’s a three headed monster. Larry’s a physicist. An acoustician. Allan Hoffman is a polymer chemist and biomaterials guru. And Patrick Stayton was a protein engineer who was working on bioconjugates. And I learned from…that mix is basically what helped make me who I am today as a scientist. I actually was trained…I would consider myself one of the early students trained in multidisciplinary, cross-disciplinary science. That has become more of a norm and a lot of schools will really, actually advertise if they do that.
You mean even beyond bioengineering? You mean generally?
Generally. I was trained as a interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary scientist. I was.
And in a lot of ways, I sort of pieced that together on my own, but did have guidance from my advisers. And so, now I train my students in the same way.
It seems obvious now, but given what you do, what other approach really is there?
Oh, there isn’t any other approach. [laugh] It is obvious now, but back then…I mean, in the laboratory I was in, which was the Applied Physics Laboratory, it was predominantly engineers and acoustics scientists. There weren’t many material scientists that were part of the laboratory. There weren’t many biologists that were part of the laboratory. Now certainly, it’s much more…it’s become the norm, right? It’s expected in order to address the really complex problems. But 25-30 years ago, that was abnormal.
It’s normal now. It was abnormal then.
Tyrone, how did you go about developing your dissertation topic both in terms of integrating your interests with what your advisers were doing and also just simply the kind of stuff that you wanted to do that was exciting and intellectually stimulating for you personally?
So, we had a first year seminar series. And this was a chance and an opportunity for the faculty to present their research and research interests to the incoming graduate students. I came to University of Washington really intent and interested in therapeutic ultrasound. During my summer at Duke University I got introduced to biomedical ultrasound. I really felt the technology had untapped potential. It could be used for much more than diagnostics applications. I knew you could use ultrasound for pushing drugs across cell membranes. A lot of work had been done on that idea for a couple of decades and I was interested in adding to that science and knowledge. Patrick Stayton came to the seminar series and talked about using polymers that were membrane disruptive for delivering drugs. And so, I thought well, could you actually bring the two together? Combine this biomaterials approach and this physics-based approach in order to temporarily open and disrupt cell membranes and still have the cells survive. So, I brought that idea to Larry, who was my primary adviser at the time. I also had a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, which gave me a lot of freedom and flexibility. I asked him if this was something that I could pursue. And he said, “By all means.” He said, “You’re here to learn. You’re here to explore. Sounds really interesting. See what you can do.” Then I approached Allan Hoffman and Pat Stayton about the idea, and they were intrigued by the potential of bringing and merging the two together. The challenge was…if there was, it was integrating something that was really, really much larger in length scales in terms of the energy that’s deposited. We’re talking millimeters.
Along with something that is on the nanoscale with these polymers that were being created. I asked Larry if I could try it. I asked Allan if he’d be willing to donate some of the polymers to me and I would just run an experiment. See what would happen. And the fortunate thing was, I had success. The unfortunate thing was, I had success.
Because it was sort of like, why does this work?
When I put the two together, it was synergistic. The effect was synergistic. It wasn’t additive. I could use much lower acoustic power or pressure levels and much lower concentrations of the polymer in order to get this desired effect. So, the misfortune was we had no idea why or how this was happening. And that served as the basis for my dissertation. It really was an exploration as to why this worked when there was no blueprint out there. No one had done this before.
And Tyrone, in terms of your motivations and intellectual pursuits as you’re really getting deep into the project…obviously there’s a basic science component to this. It’s just simple discovery. But there’s also clearly potential human health implications as well, right? So, both in terms of your style as a scientist, how you’re developing your research agenda, all of these things…are you thinking particularly one track or the other? Are you always trying to see this as two sides of the same coin? How are you sort of approaching this now that you’re becoming a real professional respected in the field?
So, at least as a graduate student, that’s where the tension resided. Because there was a potential for translation and there was a potential for patenting the ideas. But as the Ph.D. student, I’m being trained to learn how to conduct hypothesis driven research.
there’s no requirement to have a patent to graduate. There’s no requirement to have an end product. And most students…that’s not the end result of their Ph.D. experience. So, there was some tension between the two priorities. And they didn’t necessarily always align. So, we did end up with a patent coming out of that line of work. I did graduate, obviously. But it was an education for me of the constant struggle, especially in biomedical engineering because the motivations for a lot of the work and a lot of the science, not all, but a lot of the work is to try to produce something that’s new, that’s going to improve quality of care for patients.
And that’s actually the way that one can get funding from a lot of agencies like the National Institutes of Health. NIH. But fundamentally and discovery work…that requires much more critical thought and analysis and focus on these hypotheses and these questions that arise from analyzing the data. And so, it turns into how does one interpret the data? And how does one use the data? Right? Moving forward. Do you use the data to then just focus and get venture capital funding and move this toward a product? Or do you use the data to generate new questions in order to pursue new science? At that point in my career, I was too immature and too young to recognize how to do both.
I do now. But that’s after 15-20 years in the game.
But at that point in my career it was really a constant battle. And it was a bit of a struggle between different advisers and priorities and how do I keep them happy such that I can graduate. So, I learned a lot from that multidisciplinary project with multiple advisers who were intimately engaged and invested in the process. And so, now I use all of that rich experience and education to lead my own projects. So, I do have interest in translating ideas. But fundamentally what I’ve come to try to do now is to separate. So, I have more senior people and scientists that can work on things to translate the ideas to the clinic or work directly with clinicians and their fellows to translate it. And then I have my graduate students who I might try to protect and just have them focus more on the fundamentals and what it’s gonna take for them to graduate and be independent scholars and researchers. There are questions that fit their needs and there are parts of a project that satisfy their needs to advance to a potential end product or end use that could go on to the hospital. I have over the years gathered that kind of experience. And that’s kind of where I am today, I guess. But that took years.
But because of the trajectory, you were clearly on an academic track in terms of pursuing postdoctorate work and things like that. You were thinking that the main idea is there’s a basic science interest and we’ll see what the therapies might be down the line. But it’s always the basic science going forward from that perspective?
What kinds of postdocs were you looking at? What was available to you? What kind of opportunities were most enticing after you defended and were looking to move on from Seattle?
When I finished up in Seattle, I certainly had an interest in an academic career. And so, I was looking for faculty who were going to be invested in teaching me the intangibles of being successful as an academic, as a scholar. But also, being successful on the home front as well. Because this job can certainly dominate your time. It can certainly dominate my time. I could spend the vast majority of my time in the office, working with students, working on new science. But I didn’t want to have that kind of life. I know people, colleagues, and peers who spend the vast majority of their time thinking about their craft. They’re professionals deeply invested in their profession. And then I know others who are much more, I would say, sort of balanced. I know others who…much more invested in their home life, and not as much in the research, for example. I wanted to be in the middle. And Dr. Christy Holland who was at University of Cincinnati had the type of life that I wanted to enjoy.
She was going to soccer games with her kids. She was involved in the church. She was in the choir or playing music for the church. And she also had a very successful research program. She was successful in securing funding and publishing. I wanted to learn how to be able to navigate both. And be sane about it. If that makes sense.
And what was the initial connection with her?
Biomedical ultrasound is a fairly small community.
My primary adviser Larry Crum…his best friend was her Ph.D. adviser. She finished at least a decade before I finished my Ph.D. program. But that was the connection; her adviser and my adviser were best friends. And so, we got to know each other by attending conferences together. I recognized that spending time in her laboratory and her research group was probably going to be the best for me. And she was happy to accept me and so…I still actually keep a connection with her.
What were you looking to accomplish in your postdoc? In other words, to what extent was it an opportunity to take on new research and new projects? And how much of it was an opportunity to refine and expand on the kind of work you were doing as a graduate student?
It was both. And after I answer this, I’m gonna have to go pick up our youngest from daycare.
And if we need to continue this tomorrow, I can, I think. No, there was an opportunity for both. So, I asked her if I could return to University of Washington. There was some additional things I wanted to do with the membrane disruptive polymers. There were some additional questions that I had. She allowed me to go back, and I did some experiments and collected some data. And then she had some projects with…instead of polymers, she was working with these lipids. And these very novel preparations of liposomes that contained gases. Christy was using them for some diagnostic and therapeutic applications. I joined the laboratory to do some very fundamental work, but also got involved in some projects that were translational in nature. Up until that point I had done mainly just work with cultured cells out of an incubator if I ever did any cell culture work. In Christy’s lab there was an opportunity to do some experiments that went beyond that and work with some clinicians, directly. I didn’t really have a chance to work with clinicians when I was at University of Washington. So, there was an opportunity to build upon what I had already done at the UW, while I was in Cincinnati. But also continued to pursue some ideas that I had written down and kept in my little notebook while I was at University of Washington. That actually ended up being very positive for me because some of the early work when I started my career at Boston University was based on my PhD and postdoc work. So, I learned how to make liposomes with Christy Holland’s group and I integrated the membrane disruptive polymers into the liposomes that I had learned how to make. So, I took elements from my Ph.D. work and elements from my postdoc work and put those two together and pursued that when I started my career at Boston University. I ended up making new formulations of drug loaded nanocarriers. And that caught some attention. It got me to a point where I was beginning to do more nanomedicine and pursue my own pathway in nanomedicine. And so, it was a positive experience because she gave me the freedom to explore my own ideas. But also continued to give me the training and education that I needed in order to be successful as a faculty member. But also, a faculty member that is a husband and a father. And that was extremely important to me.
Right. Right. So, it sounds like that’s a good place to cut it here for round one.
Okay. No, that’s good.