Interview

Former VP for research returns to faculty

Dordick offers advice for aspiring researchers, reflects on experiences, looks to future

Professor Jonathan Dordick retired from his position as vice president for research and returned to full-time faculty. He is also serving as special advisor on strategic initiatives. 

Following are excerpts from an interview he did with Anahit Hovhannisyan and Darby Burns, reporters for The Polytechnic. Responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.


HOVHANNISYAN: What insight have you gained from your time as vice president for research? What advice would you give to a successor of the position?

DORDICK: As VP, you learn a tremendous amount about the university in all aspects. You learn about academics. You learn a lot about student life. You learn about athletics. You learn a lot about financial aspects of the university. You really learn about everything that needs to be known, essentially, about how a university runs. You get a different perspective on what some of the pressures are. As VP for research, you worry about the grant money that’s coming in and how to enhance the funding across the board. I had to worry about everybody’s funding. My advice to whoever takes over is to really relish in becoming knowledgeable about how a university runs but also to be excited about being able to try to help people and make a difference.

BURNS: You previously mentioned some advice for those who have an interest in being president somewhere one day. Is that something you ever thought you wanted to do?

DORDICK: I’ve thought about it, but my interests have been much more into doing my own research, educating students, discovering new things, and starting companies. I’ve done kind of that whole range of things. I have more fun being the professor, doing the research, teaching courses, and working with young people. I don’t regret at all being in the administration for many years now, but it’s exciting to go back to being a professor. 

BURNS: Where do you see research at RPI going? Do you foresee any major changes in the near future?

DORDICK: I think one of the goals we have is to grow research considerably. The best way to do that is to grow the faculty size, and I see the faculty size growing during this campaign. A major goal is faculty recruitment. Obviously, start-up packages are expensive and that’s why we need the money. When you have more faculty, you get more research done. There’s this collaboration that faculty have across the board and it just results in a much broader intellectual environment that leads to more funding. 

HOVHANNISYAN: How have your past experiences as chair of the Department of Chemical Engineering and director of the Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies aided your term as vice president for research?

DORDICK: Well, I knew all the people. I certainly knew the president well and got to know her even better as VP. I knew many members of the Board. Then, I become much more intimately involved with various leadership components of the university. Being department chair, you worry about the department and how to hire faculty. That was probably the most critical thing—hiring the next generation of faculty. A director position is obviously research focused, which helped me to become VP because I was really in charge of a very large research enterprise within the university, so it was a nice stepping stone to being VP for research.

BURNS: In an email response to The Polytechnic, you mentioned embarking on a new position. What roles and responsibilities follow special advisor on strategic initiatives?

DORDICK: We’re not quite sure. As VP for research, I would go around the country, if not the world, talking about RPI research. I’d speak to alumni groups. I’d speak in the world economic forum. I think what Dr. Jackson has in mind is to be able to take advantage of the networks that I have and the research background that I have—not only in my own area, but also what we’re doing across the campus. I think I would help advancement in terms of reaching out to the alumni and giving talks about Rensselaer at various venues. Another aspect of it is to provide advice in terms of what we should be going after—perhaps, using me as a sounding board to work with some of the faculty to move forward.

HOVHANNISYAN: What kind of research have you been involved in? What do you plan on pursuing as you return to being a full-time professor?

DORDICK: I haven’t given it up. That made it really tough because most vice presidents or provosts or even deans don’t really have much of a research program. I thought I might wind it down but I couldn’t get away from it. Some of my work deals with biomolecular systems, mainly proteins or enzymes—specifically, trying to understand how proteins interact with nanomaterials and if there are fundamental differences between a well-controlled nanomaterial in terms of size, shape, or chemical composition and how proteins interact with that versus, let’s say, some flat surface. We found some interesting phenomena. The effect of surface curvature—nobody had studied that much before. We found some really interesting impacts on proteins. 

The other area of work that my group focused quite some time on is developing three-dimensional cell culture systems, so that we can use human cell cultures in a matrix in very small volumes. We developed these little chips and can go down to about 50 nanoliters of cell culture per spot. So, we can essentially run up to 500 microscope size chips of individual cell cultures simultaneously. We can use that for anything from human toxicology assays to drug discovery assays, to even optimizing cell culture parameters for antibody production. So, that’s been an area of interest that we’ve had for quite some time. We’ve commercialized some of that, but we still of course do the basic research here. 

BURNS: What was it that drew you to your particular field of research?

DORDICK: Well, I always was interested in biology and in kind of being more quantitative. I was an undergrad at Brandeis University and I was a biochemistry major. So, I went to my advisor one day—and I had hardly ever been to see him—and I said, “I’m not sure I want to just do biochemistry.” He said, “Well why don’t you come to some seminars given by a guy that was from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology?”—and he was biochemical engineer. I had no idea what that was. So, I went to the seminar and I thought it was pretty neat, and we had arranged that I would go back with him to MIT. He took me back from Waltham to Cambridge, Massachusetts and introduced me to a number of the students and postdocs.

So I applied, got into MIT for my PhD, and worked on fermentations. Then, I moved to some of the enzyme work, and that got me into the field. I didn’t know I was going to go into academia, in fact I spent the first 10 months at a company in England called Tate & Lyle—they’re the ones that were involved in developing Splenda. So actually, I have a number of patents on Splenda and developing new routes to make it.

But then I decided, yeah I really want to go back and just do academic work. So, I had applied to a number of places, and one of the places that was very focused on biocatalysis was the University of Iowa, so that’s one of the reasons I ended up there.

HOVHANNISYAN: So it seems like you’re very passionate about your research; what’s the most rewarding aspect of it in your opinion? 

DORDICK: I would say seeing students really turn into good scientists. I’ve had 57 PhD students graduate in my career, and you can see them come in with all sorts of different backgrounds and you know they don’t know much about research. Some of them have done undergraduate research, but it’s a big difference between undergraduate research and being in charge of a thesis project. You don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel for a while. But, I like kind of working with them. So that I think is one of the most rewarding things about being a professor. The more students you have, the larger the community that you’ve been engaged in. 

Another thing is the ability to do research in areas that really excite you. Yes, you have to get the money, and that’s never any fun. But you know, once you get the money, you’ve got to do what excites you, so just getting money for the sake of getting it doesn’t really mean a whole lot. Always keep your mind open. That’s one of the things I like to tell the faculty: don’t always feel that you have to only do things that are funded. Sometimes you’ve got to take a chance, and that’s what I did with Rockefeller, actually, on nanomaterial projects. 

BURNS: You mentioned working with students and how you love that—now that you’re going back to being a professor, what kind of courses do you think you’ll be teaching?

DORDICK: Well my dean, Shekhar—who I hired by the way—says I have to teach six courses a semester. 

[laughter]

DORDICK: I taught a bunch of undergrad, so in ChemE I would teach the first one, the mass energy entropy balance course. I taught thermo. I’ll probably teach those courses, teach biochemical engineering. I’d like to teach an advanced enzyme technology class or something like that, but we’ll see. So probably a course a semester, I would guess. But I’d definitely like to do undergraduate classes.

That’s kind of nice, to have students come in and they’re kind of nervous. And then I talk to them and say, “Look, here are the concepts, this is what we’re gonna learn,” and see them kind of progress all the way through. That’s kind of fun to see. Lots of students work hard. 

HOVHANNISYAN: Do you have any advice for students interested in research here at RPI or after they graduate?

DORDICK: For undergraduates, I think that it’s critical that they work in a lab. What makes it so important is that it’s not like a textbook; there’s no right answer. There may be many wrong answers but there’s no real right answer. So, it’s very open ended. There’s differences, whether you work in a lab that has a very small number of people and maybe a young faculty member, or a large lab with a more senior faculty member. In the former, you’re going to get much more interaction with the faculty member. In the latter, you probably won’t have that much, but you’re going to be integrated into the laboratory and that makes it very exciting.

It’s also exciting because it gives you a different community to work with. There are some other undergraduates, but there’ll also be graduate students, postdocs, and research scientists. It’s a different community than the classroom, and that’s often very important for people. Typically people—maybe from underrepresented groups, maybe women as well—who sometimes feel like they can’t connect with others in a class, but here in the lab it’s very democratic. Everybody has to help each other and everybody’s out to answer basic questions. And those aren’t questions dictated by someone else, they’re really dictated by the project. What do we need to understand? What do we need to do? There’s no bad question that someone could ask, so that’s important. And it doesn’t have to be just science, it can be in the humanities as well. There are a lot of research activities there as well. 

Sometimes—again there are no bad questions—you may have a crazy question. I’ve had several. And I’ve had some strange ones from students in my lab. When you really think about it, they’re very insightful—in some cases, not all—but then it leads to us going in a new direction. And that’s always exciting. I just had a paper accepted with an undergrad’s name on the paper. So it’s always nice for them to go back to their parents, and say, “Hey, look what I did.”

Beyond that, well, if you want to go to grad school, it’s very different. It’s very tough for students when they go to the same grad school as they did undergrad, because you kind of show up for grad school and it’s like you haven’t left. But they’re completely different. I mean the course work becomes relatively, well actually easier, number one. Number two is, it’s not as important. What’s important is that you, if you go for a PhD, is that you take on a project, you have a problem, you solve the problem, you write a thesis, give talks, write papers—things like that. Very, very different.