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Q&A - Alan J. Snyder: The Questions That Matter

For great researchers, humility is indispensable.

Alan J. Snyder became Lehigh’s vice president and associate provost for research and graduate studies in August 2010 after a long tenure with Pennsylvania State University’s College of Medicine, where he served as professor of surgery and bioengineering, associate vice president for health sciences research and vice dean for research at the College of Medicine, and director of the Office of Technology Development. At Penn State, Snyder spent 20 years working on the development of artificial hearts and ventricular assist devices for patients suffering heart failure. Snyder is a Fellow of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering. He holds a Ph.D. in bioengineering from Penn State.

Q: What motivates you?

A: I’m excited by the great things we can do and the certainty they will have a tangible and positive impact on people.

Q: Beyond knowledge and intelligence, what are the qualities necessary to be a good researcher?

A: Curiosity, drive and intensity. Researchers identify questions that matter for which they don’t know the answers. We dream of things we could do if only, especially if we think we can get to that if only. All great researchers have a touch of humility because they realize they don’t know the answers to important questions.

Q: What attracted you to Lehigh?

A: Lehigh has worthy aspirations and a sound foundation upon which to build. There is a tradition of bringing ideas all the way to the point where they impact the world. There is a cohesive academic community that recognizes the inherent value of knowledge and the relevance of every discipline to understanding the world and acting more effectively in it.

Q: What is your most memorable research achievement?

A: Working on medical devices — from brainstorming ideas to designing and building to sitting with a patient whose life is supported by a device I had a role in developing. It’s exceedingly important to me, as we do research and develop technologies, that we pay attention to the human impact — how implementation plays out in people’s lives.

Q: You were part of the research team that worked in the 1990s on the preclinical development of the Arrow LionHeart, the first fully implantable heart-assist device for patients with severe heart failure. How has the device progressed?

A: Our vision was to provide prosthetic blood pumps that support circulation in patients with intractable heart failure, and to do it in a way that minimized limitations in people’s daily lives. Ours was the first group — and the only one to date — to develop fully wireless systems that allow patients to shower normally and swim.

The fundamental core technology — pumps that move blood safely and reliably — has continued to evolve. The newer pumps are smaller, more reliable and easier to implant. But the success of these smaller devices is due in part to what was learned from our experience.

The technology continues to evolve, and we’ve realized that people are incredibly adaptable, inventing ways to manage technology for their own purposes. There was recent publicity about a young woman with an implanted blood pump getting married with her battery pack and electronics tucked neatly inside the back of her wedding dress. The goal of medical technology should be to enable people to meet their personal life goals. Telling someone what they can and cannot do is tantamount to telling them what their goals should be.

Q: Why are engineers well-suited to conduct medical research?

A: In addition to being adept at identifying and understanding problems, engineers have ways of understanding the world that are unique and they can lend that perspective to others. One is the ease with which engineers recognize systems — in which changing one thing affects many others. Systems thinking has become important in other fields, including biology. Today it is clearly recognized that systems thinking needs to be infused into the process of delivering healthcare. Systems thinking is also necessary in the application of technology. It is common to develop technologies and bring them into practice simply because we can. But we should also think of impact and how to manage it. I’ve worked on devices to keep people alive and allow them to get into better shape as they wait for heart transplants. But they also needed support in dealing with the stressful environment of a hospital and isolation from friends and families.

Q: What role does research play in educating students?

A: We want to provide students with experiences that enable them to make unique accomplishments. This includes ensuring that students are competent in their fields of concentration and confident of their ability to work in the real world with people who bring different perspectives. The environment of creative scholarship is an excellent venue for students to grow in competence, confidence and capability.

Q: Discuss the importance of fundamental research.

A: As scholars, we have faith in the innate value of knowledge and understanding. We also have full confidence that new knowledge will have an impact, whether or not we know exactly how that will happen. We should remind people why it’s better to be enlightened on a topic than not. I recently heard someone point out that you need only open the newspaper to see what happens when the workings of the physical world are poorly understood and the perceptions and motivations of human beings remain inscrutable.

Q: What is your philosophy of technology transfer?

A: Technology transfer is the process of ensuring that the knowledge we generate has its full impact in the world. For that to happen, patenting and licensing are often necessary — to justify investment of risk capital — but they are only one way. When faculty members offer a workshop to people from industry, that’s technology transfer. When they publish a paper so others understand and use their work, that’s also technology transfer. Anytime we take theory to practice in a way that enables others to make practical use of it, we’ve succeeded in technology transfer.

Q: What is your most memorable achievement in technology transfer?

A: What I’ve enjoyed most is helping people shift their perspectives from their work as scientists to what others need. This can be difficult for people who have made major personal commitments to their research. Think of a scientist who has worked 15 to 20 years on a project that’s about to give birth to an important new product. But first the scientist has to let someone else take ownership of the idea. Letting go can be incredibly difficult. I believe some of my most satisfying work has been in guiding scientists, whose focus is on discovery and understanding, to transfer their work to a startup company whose focus is, of necessity, on a product.

Q: How do we educate the next generation of scientists?

A: I was a gadgeteer as a kid; I knew I was going to be an engineer. If I were a 12- to 17-year-old today, I would feel that I had a far larger menu of opportunities. It’s difficult to attract students to STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields in part because they’re so aware of their options and there is more competition for students’ curiosity and motivations.

We have to continuously humanize STEM learning. Students whose curiosity and talents suit them to these fields, and who are sensitive and plugged in socially, should know that study of science and technology will not bar them from any of the world’s fascinating opportunities. The richer and more varied the experience that we can promise students, the easier it will be to attract them to STEM fields.

The evolution of technology, says Alan Snyder, must be accompanied by attention to its human impact.