Ajit Yoganathan, who helped start, cultivate and grow one of the nation’s leading biomedical engineering departments here at the Georgia Institute of Technology, was recently elected to the National Academy of Engineering, one of the highest professional honors accorded an engineer. And in typical fashion, Yoganathan says it’s always been about the work.
“At the end of the day, this honor is a reflection of the work we have done in the lab, all of us, the grad students, the post docs and clinical collaborators – the hard work that has impacted human lives,” says Yoganathan, Regents’ Professor (and Wallace H. Coulter Distinguished Chair) in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering who also holds a joint appointment in the School of Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering.
“What has always been the most important thing for me was the interaction with physicians and clinicians, and making sure the work was relevant to them,” he adds. “I like to see what we do impact the clinical understanding of a problem, or get to the patient in three to five years.”
Yoganathan’s research deals with experimental and computational fluid mechanics as it pertains to artificial heart valves, left and right sides of the heart, and congenital heart diseases. His work involves the use of laser Doppler velocimetry, digital particle image velocimetry, cardiac Doppler ultrasound and cardiac magnetic resonance imaging to non-invasively study and quantify blood flow patterns in the cardiovascular system.
In a career that spans 40 plus years he has become one of the world’s leading experts in cardiovascular fluid mechanics, and currently is director of the Center for Innovative Cardiovascular Technologies (CICT, one of the research centers affiliated with the Parker H. Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Bioscience). After arriving at Georgia Tech in 1979 from Cal Tech, Yoganathan established the Cardiovascular Fluid Mechanics Lab, which has become one of the pioneering laboratories in the world studying the function and mechanics of heart valves and other complex cardiac defects.
The son of medical doctors (a GP and a professor of pathology), Yoganathan grew up in Sri Lanka with an interest in human health, but never really considered following in his parents’ footsteps.
“I never wanted to be an M.D. I never really wanted to practice medicine, never got into that. But the idea that we can use engineering to work on medical problems, that was intriguing,” says Yoganathan, who got interested in matters of the heart while in grad school at Cal Tech in 1973. Cardiovascular fluid mechanics was a relatively young area of research at the time, but he recognized the challenge and the potential.
“I ventured into an area that was something of a risk, in terms of a career, but it was very exciting at that time,” Yoganathan says. “I certainly didn’t think it was something I’d be doing for the next 40 years, but I did think it would impact patients, and that’s what really interested me.”
A few years after arriving in Atlanta, where he is a jointly affiliated with Emory and Georgia Tech, Yoganathan sort of stumbled into pediatric cardiovascular research. There were virtually no pediatric cardiologists at the time, but through informal conversations with clinicians, he saw the need for research in this highly specialized area.
And his research, obviously translational in nature, has produced some fantastic results. For example, a surgical planning tool, SURGEM (developed together with Professor Jarek Rossignac in the College of Computing), is revolutionizing pediatric surgery in places where it used (such as Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and Boston Childrens Hospital, three of the leading pediatric hospitals in the country). He also invented a surgical technique, the Y-graft, and his years of experience and growing expertise has made him a consultant of choice for medical device manufacturers.
At Georgia Tech, Yoganathan was one of the early drivers of a budding biomedical engineering movement, and was one of the pioneers and major contributors in the creation and growth of the Coulter Department, as well as the Petit Institute.
“BME was created as a hybrid of engineering, and a focal point of engineering and medicine at Georgia Tech,” says Yoganathan, who started and headed up the graduate education program at BME, and today serves as the department’s associate chair for translational research. “The collaborative partnership with Emory was very important, because it brought clinicians to the table. I don’t think we could be a BME department without that. It gives us insight into clinical problems, and allows us to dialogue with world class clinicians. It’s validation for the department.”
So is an honor like the NAE induction. In addition to Yoganathan, other College of Engineering members elected this year are Deepak Divan, a professor in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Vigor Yang, chair and professor in the School of Aerospace Engineering. These professors are among the 67 new elected members.
“Ajit is one of the finest scholars in the field of biomedical engineering. The impact he has had in combining mathematical modeling with experimental validation on improving heart valve performance can be measured only by our ability to measure the value of saved lives,” says Ravi Bellamkonda, chair of the Coulter Department. “I am proud of his career. His continued translational efforts and his transparent passion to invent better cardiovascular therapies represent the very best that the Georgia Tech-Emory BME, and Georgia Tech as a whole, have to offer.”
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