The path to a faculty position: Q & A with alumnus Amir Manbachi

A faculty position at a prestigious institute is a coveted career path for many PhD graduates.

Alumnus Amir Manbachi (EngSci 0T8, IBBME MASc 1T0, PhD 1T5), a recently-appointed research faculty member in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Johns Hopkins University, shares some insights on his journey to the ivory tower.

Congratulations on your new position. Can you tell us about your role?

Earlier this month, I began my appointment as a faculty research associate in the Department of Biomedical Engineering and jointly as director of innovations at the Carnegie Center for Surgical Innovation at Johns Hopkins University.

In this role, I will be working closely with Professor Jeffrey Siewerdsen, Professor Jean-Paul Wolinksy (clinical director of the Johns Hopkins Neurosurgery Spine Program) and other researchers on a number of medical imaging modalities for image-guided neuro-interventions and spine applications, as well as 3D printing for surgical use.

How did your PhD from the University of Toronto’s Institute of Biomaterials & Biomedical Engineering (IBBME) prepare you for this position?

I was the inaugural student for the PhD in biomedical engineering program with clinical engineering concentration—it was the first of its kind in Canada.

The research side of my program was supervised by Professor Emeritus Richard Cobbold and focused on image-guidance technology for spine surgeries. A series of hospital surgical observerships from the clinical concentration provided me with a background that leveraged scientific investigation with practical approaches in a medical environment.

During my PhD, I also founded a start-up company by the name of Spinesonics Medical Inc. Through this experience, I gained a wealth of knowledge on how to incorporate a company, fundraise, protect intellectual property through patent processes, prototype medical devices and create jobs.

A PhD alone is usually not enough to land a faculty position. For me, it was the mixture of research, clinical experience and entrepreneurship knowledge gained at U of T that helped me acquire this position.

You are proposing to use 3D printing capabilities for surgical applications. How did you gain exposure to this technology?

I was primarily exposed to 3D printing for biomedical engineering research during my postdoctoral appointment at Harvard-MIT’s Division of Health Sciences & Technology. My supervisor, another U of T Engineering alumnus, Professor Ali Khademhosseini (ChemE 9T9, MASc 0T1), is a world-renowned expert in micro- and nanoscale biomedical engineering, and one of the projects I worked with him on involved the use of 3D printing for tissue engineering.

Hopkins BME is already an innovative pioneer in the area of 3D printing for medical applications, such as printing prosthetics, and my experience in this field helped me to further fit in to their research mandate.

What motivated you to become an academic?

I was really fortunate to have great mentors and role models at the University of Toronto, both during my undergraduate studies in Engineering Science and my graduate studies in IBBME. The clinical engineering concentration in my PhD program gave me exposure to research coupled with practical experience in a hospital setting. This, in turn, helped me discover my passion for scientific investigations with direct real-world applications.

Ideally, a biomedical engineer can impact the lives of many patients through innovation in medical technology. I am fortunate to join Johns Hopkins, an environment that is world-renowned to foster this kind of mission.

Dedication and excellence in research are key ingredients for being successful at acquiring a faculty position. But what are some other necessary requirements?

Surround yourself with positive, energetic and hard-working people. No matter how hard you try, you will fail many times in your career. Your circle of friends, family and colleagues can help you get back up to speed, emotionally and practically.

Also, be open to criticism and influence by pioneers. You will increase your odds of success if you observe, learn and follow a similar route as many other brilliant researchers before you.

Travel and go to conferences, pursue placements outside of your comfort zone and seek feedback. These are all good networking opportunities that help you make connections for future.

Anything else you would like to add?

At IBBME, I did not just learn from my professors, but also from many students that I personally mentored, many of whom are now my colleagues. I am grateful to all of you.

This interview has been condensed and edited.