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By: Bradley A. Porter (DC'08)
A mother in Sub-Saharan Africa walks to a well just outside her village, an infant boy strapped to her back with a colorful cloth. She’s retrieving the day’s drinking water, but it’s food that’s on her mind. Soon, she must wean her son from breast feeding, and she worries that there isn’t enough food available for him to get the nutrients he needs. It’s a pressing concern where she lives; more than 33 million children younger than five years old suffer from starvation there, and nearly half either die or have stunted development because of malnutrition. Even those who can get enough food may not get the right kinds—40% suffer from vitamin A deficiencies, which regularly cause blindness in this part of the world.
As this mother walks through the brush on the outskirts of her village, pushing a few six-foot-tall weeds out of her way, she continues fretting about how she’ll get healthy food for her son. It doesn’t occur to her that the weeds themselves might be the solution. To her, these ubiquitous plants, Amaranth, are just brush—edible in a pinch, but a poor man’s survival food, not something routinely suitable for a household’s dinner.
Walking around LeDuc’s lab in a quiet corner of Hamerschlag Hall, you could be forgiven for not figuring out what the dozen or so students—mostly PhD candidates—are studying. Their backgrounds seem to be all over the place, ranging from electrical engineering to computing to medicine to physics to materials science. Asking these students what they are working on might not be much help either, as you’ll hear answers ranging from bacteria to synthetic gene circuits to three-dimensional imaging to bioenergy to cancer to magnets.
And even if you sit in on their regular lab meetings, you won’t hear the professor droning on about the protocols of the research paper they’ll all be helping him publish. Instead, you will hear him ask what they were “into” that week and whether anybody wanted to bring up a topic that they could “geek out on.”
For the record, the lab is ostensibly centered around mechanical engineering, but LeDuc makes clear that any discussion of disciplines bores him terribly. To him, any differences among materials science, mechanical engineering, and cellular biology are a matter for administrators to work out when handing out degrees—he couldn’t care less. A former corporate management consultant, he often says, “I only care if a student is talented; I don’t care in what. My approach is to identify students with incredible drive and initiative, give them the tools and support they need, and then get out of their way.”
Whether you’re working on a bone cell, a hunk of steel, a Mars rover, or a Fortune 500 company, such endeavors don’t strike him as fundamentally different tasks—they’re all engineering systems. Get him talking about tinkering with systems, and he lights up and speaks with an evangelist’s zeal.
Every week, LeDuc gathers his students for a lab meeting, which is more like an intellectual “jam session,” just a group of engineers bringing up ideas and problems that intrigue them. During one particular meeting, the students run out of things to talk about. So, LeDuc pulls out his BlackBerry, which can access a folder he named, Ideas. In it are dozens of random topics culled from conversations with co-workers in the hallway, papers he’s come across, and even some thoughts that occurred to him while he was brushing his teeth. In hopes of ending the meeting’s standstill, Ideas become the topic of conversation.(Continued …)