I am writing this welcome note amidst increasing challenges of a resurgent virulent pandemic and continued societal protests against systemic racial injustice. In these unprecedented times, all of us are working towards optimally fulfilling our academic mission in the Fall of 2020, providing the best possible educational experience to our students, while guarding their health and that of our faculty and staff.
The beginning of our department’s eighth academic year was a time for optimistic expectations: we welcomed our cohort of 65 undergraduate and 10 graduate students. The 2019 BMES conference in October, successfully co-hosted in Philadelphia by Temple Bioengineering, Drexel BioMed and UPenn Bioengineering, was one of the highlights of the academic year and helped to solidify our position in the bioengineering world.
As a department, we continue to be successful academically. We graduated our largest cohort of undergraduate students, quite a few of whom were accepted into prestigious PhD programs nationwide. We proudly celebrated the promotion of Prof. Bojana Gligorijevic to Associate Professor with tenure and that of Prof. Ruth Ochia to Full Professor of Instruction. Researchers in our department received several national grants, including 2 NIH R01s to Prof. Andrew Spence. Our faculty published approximately 30 peer-reviewed research papers and were active in presenting their work at conferences across the country.
The latter part of the academic year became a vexing period of uncertainty, change, and unprecedented challenges. With the advance of COVID-19, life as we knew it changed on March 16, 2020. We switched, literally overnight, to offering all of our courses online for the remainder of the spring semester. We also had to make the painful decision to shut down our research operations, which we managed to do in an orderly fashion. Ever since, we have been conducting business via video-conferencing, maintaining some sense of normalcy via daily long-distance interactions: teaching, meeting with our students, staff, faculty, and administration.
Clearly, the online experience cannot replace in-person contacts, the availability of advanced telecommunications has helped us to fulfill our academic mission by providing top-notch education to our students, and also advancing our research enterprise, e.g. by intensifying our collaborations, writing papers and submitting grant proposals. One of the tangible consequences of the COVID pandemic is the enhanced move to online education. We successfully offered, for the first time, summer courses, online. Another surprising, yet encouraging, outcome of having to go online at the end of the spring semester and throughout the summer, was the visibly increased participation of our students and faculty in on-line MS and PhD thesis defenses. We certainly will open up future defenses to streaming over the Internet.
While we had to shut down our research, our faculty and, especially, our students became involved in helping Temple University Hospital cope with some of the emergencies that threatened to overwhelm the health system. We donated to the hospital all of our available PPE and our students joined the Temple University COVID Assistance Team, a university-wide effort, to manufacture and procure urgently needed face shields and other equipment to protect the frontline health workers in the Temple medical and dental clinics. Initially, a few thousand masks were produced by 3D printing, leveraging the capabilities of our department, college, and the main campus, but also individual 3D printers in our students’ homes. Subsequently, with the introduction of improved manufacturing techniques, the effort produced more than 16,000 face shields for the Temple Health System and community organizations.
After a three-month hiatus, we recently were approved to return to the research labs and resume our research activities in a staggered fashion. By working in shifts, all of our PIs were able to reopen their labs and gradually, yet effectively, resume their research in our shared lab spaces, while allowing for efficiently maintaining the mandate of social distancing.
As we were grappling with the COVID pandemic, the nation experienced yet another tragic death of an unarmed black man at the hands of the local authorities in Minneapolis. We were and are appalled by the senseless and vicious murder of George Floyd and denounce any kind of brutality, especially racially-motivated murder. As a child of holocaust survivors, I am enraged by the blatant, systemic abuse of institutional power against minorities. Taking pride in our diversity, where two-thirds of our faculty members are first- or second-generation immigrants, and with half of our faculty being women, our department identifies with the fight for racial justice and social equality. We endorse Black Lives Matter and stand up against hatred, bigotry, xenophobia, and discrimination of any sort. As a department, we pledge to make every effort to increase the participation of minorities, especially of African-Americans, as students, teachers and researchers, alike, and to intensify our outreach to and interactions with the neighboring communities.
This is not your usual upbeat chair’s welcome letter and pep-talk; rather, it is a sober, honest, and realistic snapshot, as we are trying to cope with the extraordinary challenges in our unusual times. We are eager to return so that we may fully realize our academic mission, and continue conducting our research. I am confident that we will overcome the obstacles lying ahead and that we will emerge strengthened, as individuals and as a society.
Peter I. Lelkes
Laura H. Carnell Professor and Chair