Engineering professor is tapped for young leader’s forum

For mechanical engineering professor David LaVan, being a young expert in his field has its perks.

LaVan, 35, was selected to take part in the National Academy of Engineering’s annual Frontiers of Engineering symposium, which will take place Thursday through Saturday at the Ford Research and Innovation Center in Dearborn, Mich. According to the symposium’s Web site, the event will bring together engineers ages 30 to 45 who are performing cutting-edge engineering research and technical work in a variety of disciplines. The participants — from industry, academia, and government — were nominated by fellow engineers or organizations and chosen from nearly 200 applicants.

“In the sciences, being 35 years old classifies you as young, and so this meeting is for young engineers that have achieved some recognition as being innovative or somehow outstanding,” LaVan said. “The idea is to meet other people who are in the same category, as well as policymakers in the government and leaders of industry.”

LaVan’s research lies at the crossroads of mechanical and biomedical engineering, combining advances in microfabrication technology with the latest developments in biomaterials. One of his current projects aims to create a device that mimics natural ion transport processes in cells — essentially an artificial cell membrane made out of polymers or self-assembled materials using nanotechnology. Finding ways to insert proteins into this kind of porous surface and maintain their normal function is particularly challenging, LaVan said.

“It’s a risky project — and it was funded under a program for high-risk projects — but even if we just learn something from the project, there are a lot of fantastic things that can come out of it,” LaVan said. “Biological energy conversion all depends on ion transport, and so does water purification, for example. So if you learn how to make stable membranes with transport proteins, you might have a revolutionary new way of doing a lot of things. If you make a list of the needs of world in our lifetime, both energy and water would be at the top of that list. So we’re just taking small steps right now, but hopefully we’ll get a lot out of it.”

Elysa Chao ’09, who worked in LaVan’s lab over the summer conducting microfluidics research, said she found that working with him was different in that he could explain both theoretical and physical aspects to their experiments.

“Professor LaVan is very hands-on and relaxed and has a lot of physical knowledge about the experiments being done in the lab,” Chao said.

Jacob Miller ’07 worked alongside LaVan for two summers and during his sophomore and junior years developing mechanically resilient biomaterials for tissue engineering, and more recently on a biomechanics project aiming to create small electromagnetic devices powerful enough to interact with cells. He also said LaVan was good to work with and pointed out his willingness to help.

“Dr. LaVan gives [his students] a lot of useful information,” Miller said, “and he’s always willing to help us out.”

Before joining the Yale engineering faculty in 2003, LaVan worked at a number of research labs, including Sandia National Labs and a joint lab at MIT and Harvard Medical School, after completing his graduate studies at Johns Hopkins University. Throughout his formative years, he said others expected him to be an engineer, but he never quite saw it as a career until college.

“I may have been the only person who doubted I should be an engineer,” LaVan said. “As a child, I was the one who could fix everything, and take everything apart — I think my parents deserve a lot of credit for allowing me to take apart everything in the house. When I was in high school, I wasn’t intending to be an engineer; I told people I was going to be a business major. … It wasn’t until later that I realized that wasn’t a good fit for me.”

Although LaVan’s college days are not too far in the past, he said it may be a slightly larger problem for today’s universities to keep young people interested in the sciences. He attributes this issue to the preconceived notion that science may not pay as well as other careers, but he says schools should learn to excite students about science even so.

“Science is fascinating; every day is a chance to learn something new,” LaVan said. “To me, that compensates for any small difference in salary. I just hope we can somehow communicate that idea to today’s young people. That’s one of the reasons I’m involved in the design program in mechanical engineering. It really reaches out a lot to the undergraduates, and it has a lot of activities and hands-on exercises that keep students who might have an interest in engineering or the sciences involved in the field.”