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Biomedical Engineer Earns AAAS Mentor Award for Commitment to Students’ Success and Empowerment

Manu Platt is the recipient of the 2021 AAAS Mentor Award. | Neil Orman/AAAS

Manu Platt, a biomedical engineer and associate professor at the joint department of biomedical engineering between Georgia Institute of Technology and Emory University, will receive the 2021 AAAS Mentor Award for his commitment to supporting the diverse members of his laboratory, providing opportunities for their growth and encouraging his students out of their comfort zones to reach their fullest potential.

The award, established by the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1993, honors an individual with less than 25 years of professional experience who has mentored a significant number of students underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, including women of all backgrounds, African American, Native American and Hispanic men, and people with disabilities.

Platt was nominated by a group of former students, trainees and colleagues, who cited his “extraordinary leadership throughout his career to increase participation of underrepresented groups in science.”

“Sometimes you just need one person to believe in you,” wrote a former Ph.D. student of Platt’s. “Dr. Platt has always been that person for me. He always saw the potential in me before I could see it, and because of that, I have had many opportunities to help me grow professionally.”

Platt’s nominators described the time and attention he devoted to those working in his lab, which seeks to understand how cells respond to their environments to repair and regenerate – and to translate that knowledge to address health disparities, with a particular focus on diseases such as sickle cell disease, HIV and breast cancer. Platt is devoted to students’ career progression beyond his lab, advising them on application essays, writing letters of recommendation and helped secure scholarship and fellowship money. One former student said Platt is still the first person she goes to for career advice.

Platt has also found opportunities for his students to present their work at conferences. He has offered them field research opportunities to help better understand the impacts of their work beyond the laboratory and give back to the communities that biomedical engineers serve, close to home and around the world, partnering with the Sickle Cell Foundation of Georgia and developing research initiatives on treatments for HIV and breast cancer in Ethiopia and South Africa.

Platt has formally mentored five students at the Ph.D. level from underrepresented groups and 32 at the bachelor’s or master’s degree level, but the effects of his mentorship have reached far beyond these students. He serves as the lead for the ESTEEMED Program at Georgia Tech, which prepares undergraduate students from underrepresented groups at the university for a pathway to a Ph.D. or an M.D. He also spearheaded Project ENGAGES, short for Engaging New Generations at Georgia Tech through Engineering and Science. The program offers paid lab experience to underserved high-school students in the Atlanta area. Since 2012, 130 students have taken part, many of whom have gone on to pursue science at highly ranked universities. Project ENGAGES participants are mentored by at Georgia Tech, including the Platt Lab. Platt and his team train these mentors in preparation for working with these scholars, multiplying the impact of Platt’s own role as a mentor.

“The students, many who have never heard of biomedical engineering, are always enthused seeing the possibilities that science has to offer. They are also encouraged to see a diverse set of scientists that they can relate to,” wrote Platt’s nominators.

Platt has implemented changes at his institution that have boosted the number of underrepresented students in the sciences. Serving as chair of graduate recruiting and admissions for the biomedical engineering department, he advocated for a review of admissions metrics and implemented a rule that committees should include at least one woman or person of color. During his tenure, the percentage of underrepresented minorities in the department rose from 7% to 25%. Platt also brought several training modules that he had developed for Project ENGAGES mentors to faculty members to help them better understand issues related to diversity.

The nominators also called attention to Platt’s efforts to recognize his trainees’ whole selves. He strives to see his students as whole people yet cultivates a healthy work-life balance in his lab, celebrating and embracing the diversity of cultures represented among his students through food and music, they said.

“Being able to share cultural experiences in a place where you may be the only one is alleviated when you have a mentor who is very confident in his own skin,” wrote one nominator.

Platt’s efforts have already earned him the 2017 Diversity Award from the Biomedical Engineering Society and the Outstanding Mentor Award from the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech.

“Though all of our experiences are a little different, the tie that binds us together is the inspiration and admiration we have for Dr. Platt and his efforts for student development and diversity in Biomedical Engineering,” wrote his nominators. “We are all stirred by his contagious fervor for being active, instrumental contributors to the betterment of our society.”

Platt will be honored at an awards ceremony at the virtual AAAS Annual Meeting on Feb. 10 at 4 p.m. EST. To tune in, register today.

If you know someone that should be recognized for this award, please consider nominating them in our next upcoming cycle – which opens April 15, 2021! More information on eligibility requirements and the awards ahead of April 15 can be found here.