An Unusual Path: A Sit Down with Dr. Hoffman

How do professors become professors? Why not just ask one and find out? Dr. Brenton Hoffman is an associate professor of Biomedical Engineering at Duke University. One might think to be a professor, they must tailor their training from day one towards their specific field and career. But would it surprise you to know that his education is entirely in chemical engineering? Or that he never intended to go into academia until midway through grad school? Or that he never even intended to go into research when he entered graduate school? If you answered “Yes” to any of these questions, let me tell you about the unusual path of this outstanding scientist.

Dr. Hoffman began his career as a chemical engineering undergraduate student at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA. He actually chose this path to avoid being in lab; he was industry-bound from day one. His game plan was to go to grad school and work as a process engineer: as far from a lab as he could get. And he followed this plan… until a chance encounter with a biophysicist the first week of graduate school. While doing some exploratory rounds of different labs at the University of Pennsylvania, he ran into this professor and, simply put, “thought it was interesting.” Joining the lab, he dove headfirst into the world of polymer physics. Along the way, he was introduced to new paths, both in scientific discovery and in career avenues. It was here that he became interested in cell mechanics, the crux of his research today. He stated that for diseases with a chemical basis, because their molecular mechanisms have been studied so well, the scientific community has developed many powerful solutions and cures. But when it comes to diseases with a mechanical component like cancer, our ability to tackle these illnesses will always be lacking until we better understand the mechanisms that govern their mechanobiology. So, he decided to dedicate his professional life to understand these molecular mechanisms which allow cells to understand and interpret their physical and mechanical environment. It was also during this time that he was allured by the path of professorship. In his words, it is impossible to design a way do great science, because if research, we by definition don’t know what we are doing. Instead, the primary goal of being a professor is providing great training, with the byproduct being good and solid science. It was this hope to prepare and train the next generation of scientists to one day be his peers that drew him from industry into the halls of academia. After completing a post-doc in a cell biology lab to bolster his biological background, he accepted a faculty position at Duke University and the rest, they say, is history.

After reflecting upon his career, Dr. Hoffman offered some life advice for young students, both budding undergraduates and wizened post-docs: “Find what you’re interested in and do it.” He stressed that students often fall into a wrought in their studies and passions, getting “locked into a preconceived notion of what’s good and bad and not looking at what makes them happy.” He warned against the common notion that just because a student used to like a subject or because they started in a certain field that they are forced stick with that path, even when it no longer enthralls them. His solution? Just don’t do it. Keep revaluating what you find fascinating and chase after that. Just as his career path turned and twisted when new interests appeared before him, he encourages young scholars to remember their training isn’t a deterministic process and to adapt accordingly. With this, our interview concluded. Before I sign off, I want to break the fourth wall and offer my own advice. If you never get the chance to meet this outstanding professor, researcher, and teacher, I implore you to heed his advice and run through unexpected twists and turns to follow your fascination and study what enthralls you.

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