Suresh praises power of interdisciplinary collaboration

Courtesy of Tim Kaulen
President Suresh delivered his first inaugural lecture last Thursday. (credit: Courtesy of Tim Kaulen) Courtesy of Tim Kaulen President Suresh delivered his first inaugural lecture last Thursday. (credit: Courtesy of Tim Kaulen)

Newly instated Carnegie Mellon President Subra Suresh gave his inaugural lecture last Thursday.

After an introduction by James Garrett, dean of the College of Engineering and Thomas Lord professor of civil and environmental engineering, Suresh was greeted with applause from the audience in the standing-room-only Rashid Auditorium.

“It is rare I get to be in the position of the professor, so let’s get to it,” Suresh said.

Suresh’s passion and the bulk of his research involve studying red blood cells and their behavior when confronted with malaria, sickle cell anemia, and leukemia.
Suresh greatly emphasized how “transformative and disruptive” developments in different fields — along with his co-workers and students — made his work possible.
Suresh focused mostly on the devastating affect malaria has on the simple human red blood cell.

Red blood cells must stretch and squeeze to fit through the extremely thin vessels in our brains, This ability is vital for bringing oxygen to all parts of the brain. When they are infected, red blood cells quickly lose this flexibility as their outer shell hardens. These infected cells go on to cause major vessel blockages.

Suresh highlighted the importance of interdisciplinary approaches to such confounding problems.

Suresh himself has background in materials science, engineering, and medicine.

He paused several times throughout the lecture to make the point that though a physics expert might not be able to solve a problem pertaining to his or her field, an engineer could.

Suresh hopes that his work with blood diseases might eventually lead to some form of cure for malaria and sickle cell anemia, for a start. Despite cautioning that he is far from any true solution, he remains optimistic.

“With each small step we come closer to solving the problem,” he said, and looked to students for help. “If any CMU students could solve this, you’d be very famous!”

“I found the lecture educational, definitely,” said alumna and Carnegie Mellon technology support and assessment analyst Shruti Valjee, “and also very inspirational. I think it’s a great way for him to start off as CMU president, not just as a president, but a researcher too.”

Iris Yang, a biomedical engineering master’s student, added, “I connected with his research and found it very interesting.”

At the end of his lecture, which lasted over an hour, Suresh stayed to answer some questions. The lecture was the first of what Suresh hopes will be many.

As the ninth president of Carnegie Mellon, Suresh has gathered many academic lauds throughout his career, one being his recent election to the Institute of Medicine. In addition, Suresh has held a position on the National Academy of Sciences since 2012 and has been a member of the National Academy of Engineering since 2002.

Suresh is one of only 16 Americans to have the honor of holding a place in all three societies. Suresh will be inaugurated this Friday.