In an effort to learn more about the world of STEM in higher education, I recently met with Dr. Manu O. Platt, assistant professor for the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory University. During our brief yet insightful interview, Dr. Platt explained some of the challenges and rewards of working for an R1 research institution. He shared his background and professional development, his techniques for balancing research with everyday teaching responsibilities, and his strategies for student motivation and mentorship. Overall, I learned a lot from our conversation and walked away feeling even more excited to pursue a career in education and certainly more equipped with the knowledge and understanding to do so.
Born into a family of educators, Dr. Platt says that he always knew higher education was in his future and that a career in academia seemed like the natural choice. He earned his bachelor’s in biology from Morehouse College in 2001, his PhD from Georgia Tech in 2006, and completed his post-doctoral studies at MIT in 2008. This impressive list of institutions not only gave him a strong foundation in the sciences, but also laid the groundwork for Platt’s professional development in research and instruction. During his graduate studies at Tech, for instance, Platt worked as a teaching assistant and was responsible for developing all course experiments, writing homework assignments, grading lab reports and quizzes, and tutoring outside of regular class time. Of these tasks, Platt emphasizes the tutoring aspect as the most influential in his young teaching experience. He found that in order to tutor, one must not only be well versed and confident in his own understanding of the subject, but also patient and capable of explaining things in a number of different ways. This makes it possible to accommodate a wide variety of students and their learning styles, which any educator is sure to encounter.
Today, Dr. Platt continues to practice those same teaching and tutoring techniques, but on a much larger and more advanced scale. As an assistant professor at Georgia Tech, Platt teaches two biomedical engineering courses, heads a lab of eighteen graduate and undergraduate researchers, and has even launched a STEM program for high school students in the Atlanta area called Project Engage. In each capacity, Dr. Platt is not only a teacher and advisor, but also a mentor.
“Morehouse Straight Talk”
Dr. Platt’s approach to mentorship is grounded in what he proudly calls “Morehouse Straight Talk”. It means he prefers to be honest and direct when interacting with students, a policy that earned him the GT Faculty Outstanding Undergraduate Research Mentor Award in 2012. When asked about the award and what specific strategy he uses to motivate students, Dr. Platt responded,
“I’ve found that you cannot teach motivation.”
He went on to explain that in the past, he offered an all-expense paid trip to his research assistants, believing that to be motivation enough for them to finish their projects and present in a timely manner. Instead, students expressed feelings of overwhelming pressure towards what they viewed as “unrealistic expectations.” In the end, Platt realized that what would have been largely motivating for him, turned out to have the opposite effect on others. He concluded that motivation cannot simply be handed; rather, “it’s something that students have to find within themselves.”
In addition to mentoring, teaching, community building, and conducting research, I assume that Dr. Platt has a life of his own. So how does he balance it all? This is the question I was most eager to ask. I understand that a career in higher education is a balancing act between politics and academia, and I am always curious to hear how professors handle it. For Dr. Platt, the answer was simple: prioritize and stay organized. He mentioned a number of books and articles that he has read to help him learn better time management skills, the most memorable being, “The Four Hour Work Week,” “Weapons of Mass Distraction,” and “Do It Now.” He suggested all of these titles to me, and even gave me his copy of the “Do It Now” article to help with juggling responsibilities as a graduate student. His best words of advice on the subject were,
“Sometimes you just have to let the fire burn. You can’t put them all out.”
STEM’s Best Kept Secret
In the end, I asked Dr. Platt about his job satisfaction and plans for the future. He assured me that he is not only satisfied, but also very happy where he is. He described a career in academia as one of professional STEM’s “best kept secrets.” Despite the stress, which is likely to come with any advanced degree, Dr. Platt says that working in academia means job security, freedom and versatility. As a professor and principal investigator at a major university, Dr. Platt’s job is always exciting and multifaceted. And as a graduate student, I already appreciate such an environment and look forward to making it a part of my future as well.