Enriching. Transformative. Nurturing. Authentic.
Those adjectives, and more like them, are how his former students have described Manu Platt and his influence on their education and careers.
Platt’s work growing — and pushing — the next generation of biomedical engineers has won him the 2021 Mentor Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), an honor that recognizes “extraordinary leadership to increase the participation of underrepresented groups in science and engineering fields and careers.”
“Dr. Platt pushed me outside of my comfort zone to a growth zone, which molded me into a better engineer and helped me find my place to be my full, authentic self as a Black woman in academia,” said Simone Douglas-Green, who earned her Ph.D. with Platt and now is a postdoctoral scholar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Dr. Platt has always given me more than I think I can handle, but he has a gift of knowing what is in his student’s best interest and encouraging them to aim higher. He always saw the potential in me before I could see it.”
Douglas-Green joined the effort to nominate Platt for the mentor award when she was contacted by Monet Roberts, another of Platt’s former doctoral students who was leading the charge. Roberts said she met Platt when she was a first-year student in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering. It was that relationship that convinced her academia was the place for her.
“He was the first Black biomedical engineer and professor that I had ever seen,” Roberts said. “He took me under his wing as an informal mentor and adviser. He started to invite me to his lab meetings. I helped out in his lab as a lab assistant and became interested in the research and transitioned to an undergraduate researcher.”
Roberts and Douglas-Green both said Platt builds a culture of family in his lab and models what it means to be what Roberts called “a socially conscious scientist and engineer.” Douglas-Green said Platt showed her how to balance advancing science while “being an advocate and doing outreach to improve diversity and inclusion in BME.”
For Platt, the award was touching — and a surprise. He said he’s thrilled to be in the company of previous winners like former Georgia Tech Dean of Engineering Gary May, the first Black dean of the college whom Platt called “a mentor and absolute hero of mine.”
“I have had amazing mentors along my way, some who looked like me and many who did not. It has opened up doors for me where I did not even know there was a door,” said Platt, associate professor in Coulter BME and a Georgia Research Alliance Distinguished Scholar. “That has led me to this exciting career in science and engineering. It has been so much more than what I would have ever thought it would be when I was a young nerd.”
Which is why, he said, mentoring has been so important to him: “Others should have that opportunity.”
Platt pointed to professors from Morehouse College who impressed upon him the importance of building a network that looks out for one another while pushing each other to improve. Platt said Petit Institute Founding Director Bob Nerem was a significant influence, reminding him that science is a people business; Coulter BME Associate Chair Hanjoong Jo has always pushed him to grow and think rigorously; and Gilda Barabino, president of the Olin College of Engineering, helped him understand the big picture.
He also credited his students, like Roberts and Douglas-Green.
“This is really a testament to the great students who have taken a risk on working with this nutty guy with crazy ideas, and then allowed me to help guide them along their way, giving them some extra experiences, opportunities, and knowledge to make it seem like a worthy, fun, and exciting journey,” Platt said.
Platt will accept the 2021 AAAS Mentor Award at the society’s annual meeting Feb. 8-11.
“We need more Platt Labs in academia that embrace inclusion and diversity to push boundaries,” Douglas-Green said. “Dr. Platt lives his life unapologetically and brings his whole self to the lab; it fosters an open lab environment and genuine connections with his students and trainees.”
She and Roberts said their connections to Platt continue, even as they start to build their careers elsewhere.
“He is more than deserving of this award,” Roberts said. “I am excited that he is getting the recognition that matches all of his efforts in the lives that he has touched.”