College of Engineering professor Mark Eiteman wants students to understand and apply approaches to solving technical problems rather than just memorizing information, since many problems they will encounter don’t have easy answers.
Where did you earn degrees and what are your current responsibilities at UGA?
I earned a Bachelor of Science degree from Virginia Tech, and master’s and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Virginia. These degrees are in chemical engineering. At UGA, I am in the College of Engineering and also have a courtesy appointment with the department of microbiology. I teach three engineering courses for the biochemical and biological engineering degree programs. My research group tries to figure out how to get microorganisms to produce biochemicals by fermentation.
When did you come to UGA and what brought you here?
I came to UGA in 1991, just four months after completing my Ph.D. and three months after getting married! What brought me here? Well, I saw UGA as having a wealth of opportunities because of its strength in the biological sciences and because of the exciting possibilities to grow an engineering program. My wife and I thought Athens would be an ideal community to live. We have not been wrong on either account.
What are your favorite courses and why?
All the courses I have taught are great in different ways. I think I like “Biochemical Engineering” the best, though. It combines several different core concepts in biology, such as biochemistry and physiology, with several core concepts in engineering such as mass transfer, heat transfer, thermodynamics and reaction kinetics. It touches everything. And because it is close to my research area, I continue to learn new things about the topic every year.
What interests you about your field?
The ability of living cells, microorganisms in particular, to carry out complex reactions is truly amazing. Using engineering tools to design a process that gets a microorganism to accumulate high concentrations of useful chemicals in an economical and renewable way is where I come in. It’s like when I was growing up: I built a bike from all the separate parts, and then it actually was able to go. It is gratifying to figure out a way to piece together microbial physiology and process design to get microorganisms to accumulate biochemicals.
What are some highlights of your career at UGA?
Last year I was awarded the Inventor’s Award from the UGA Research Foundation. I also have been honored to serve as the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Biological Engineering, a position that keeps me on top of new developments in the field. One of the most exceptional experiences so far has been serving as a Fulbright Scholar to India. Not only did I represent the university and my discipline, but I also represented the United States. I met many wonderful people and learned so much about the Indian culture, in addition to realizing how culture affects research and education. All faculty should have the chance to work abroad.
How does your research or scholarship inspire your teaching, and vice versa?
Research and instruction are inseparable parts of the process of higher education. As I conduct research and develop technologies, I keep up with and contribute to the new developments in my field. I can then convey these ideas to students, sharing my experiences and how I have tackled different problems. At the same time, communicating this technical information gives me a deeper appreciation for where the field came from and what its current limitations are. Understanding these limitations inspires new research directions.
What do you hope students gain from their classroom experience with you?
Students should learn engineering theory very well, of course. Eventually though, students should also learn that many engineering problems simply don’t have easy answers and that we must move forward sometimes without a complete understanding of what is going on. So, it is better to understand approaches to solving technical problems, rather than just memorizing a bunch of information that anyone could look up on the Internet. Additionally, students need to learn how to be critical of others’ work in a professional way.
Describe your ideal student.
Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. Some students are hard working but lack people skills, while others are terrific networkers, but prefer not to do hands-on work. Some are generalists and others are detail-oriented. That’s OK. The key is to find the unique strengths of an individual, align them with one’s personal interests, and channel them into something productive. The terrific aspect of working with students is the great diversity they bring to instruction and research. I have had some students ask me questions or come up with ideas that I never would have thought of. But that often leads to new insights and innovation. So, the ideal students are diverse, willing to take intellectual risks by asking questions, by thinking, by challenging assumptions, and by being passionately dedicated to fulfilling their own aspirations.
Favorite place to be/thing to do on campus is…
The best thing to do is just walk around this gorgeous campus in the springtime. Nothing can beat a half an hour of smelling the different blossoms, listening to all the chatter between classes and watching students (and faculty) scurry off to class or elsewhere.
Beyond the UGA campus, I like to…
… travel, learn new cultures and meet new people.
Community/civic involvement includes….
Well, my wife is also a busy engineer, and with two teenage daughters most of our free time is spent involved in their many sporting and extracurricular activities.
Favorite book/movie (and why)?
A few years ago I read “The Origin of Species” by Charles Darwin. Talk about a risk-taker. This consummate observational scientist meticulously accumulated evidence to support a provocative and profound theory. He was one of the most dedicated, impactful scientists of all time. Generally, I also enjoy historical nonfiction, everything from Roman times to modern history. For example, right now I am reading “The Wright Brothers” by David McCullough. It is remarkable how these enterprising brothers—from my own hometown of Dayton, Ohio—understood the fundamental importance of wind and air to flight, despite having no college education. They practiced engineering design methodology every day.
My wife and I love all genres of movies. I can think of two that rank as personal favorites. “2001: A Space Odyssey.” No other movie captures 100,000 years of evolution of technology and of the human body and mind. What an artistic vision from 1968, contemplating what the human species can become! Another movie I enjoy is “Chariots of Fire.” Though it takes some historical license, it is a terrific film about maintaining one’s principles, pursuing one’s passion and finding inner spirituality. This year my favorite movie has been “Mad Max,” a high-energy, fun ride with some insightful observations about people and how they treat each other for a cause.
Proudest moment at UGA?
It is easy to be proud at a university where one’s students graduate and go on to find different paths to success. One of my proudest moments was the graduation of my first Ph.D. student almost 20 years ago. I felt like I had truly made a difference broadly to society and specifically to an individual’s personal development. Every time I meet one of my former undergraduate or graduate students, and he or she tells me of their successes, I feel quite proud. Isn’t that the ultimate goal of a university educator?