5 Questions: Neal Bangerter

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Professor Neal Bangerter, associate professor of electrical engineering, has taught at BYU for four years.

Why did you decide to come back to be a teacher?

I enjoy research but one of the great things in being in academic is getting to break it up with teaching. I just find a lot of satisfaction. It’s really rewarding to me to watch students get things. One of my first students set his expectations low; we were able to teach him and mentor him and set his expectations high, and now he’s succeeding. Teaching and mentoring students — that’s all in one and the same for me. Being able to raise expectations for themselves and give them the tools they need to succeed. To me, that’s so rewarding.

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How does the IMMERSE Program work, and how does it help BYU students?

The idea of the IMMERSE Program is to provide a formalized, mentored, research experience for undergrad students. We encourage students to apply in their freshmen and sophomore years. Once we hire them, it’s a commitment on our part through their undergraduate career and they become part of our research group. Basically we’re taking undergraduates and getting them involved in essentially graduate-level research and giving them all of the tools to get the best graduate education they can.

I’ve been here only four years, and of my first batch of summer students one is doing a Ph.D. at Stanford, one at University of Michigan and one at Georgia Tech. And, in electrical engineering, those are all top-ten schools. We’ve had really good placement from this program.

What is a big project you are working on right now?

Some huge number, probably 30 million people and ten percent of the United States population has this. When your cartilage starts to break down, wear out and get thin, your bone starts hitting bone and your joints don’t work as well. Knee replacements and hip replacements are the only treatment we have right now for osteoarthritis. This little handheld ultrasound device we have actually helps guinea pigs’ cartilage growth. If we can effect the cartilage, this will be huge.

What type of student excels in electrical engineering, and how do your students compare to other BYU students?

I think students that like to tinker and that have very active curiosities. The kind of student that is good in math, good at science and like to take electronic stuff apart tend to do well in our program.

The engineering math series is not enough for the electrical engineering department. We make our students go and take the advanced math courses in the math department because we don’t want it watered down. There’s a lot of math and hard-core physics that you can teach in lectures, but what separates electrical engineering from pure math and pure physics is getting in the lab and doing the hands on stuff. We’re not limited enrollment; we’re not uber competitive to get in to, but I’ve heard that we’re the hardest major on campus.

You have spent years of your life working on improving MRI images; what keeps you driving? Why is this so important?

I can give you a number of examples. I had some trouble with my ankle during grad school, so we threw me in the MRI machine and I had a radiologist friend look at the images of my ankle. We found out I had a very aggressive tumor in my ankle. They were able to get in early enough and get it out, basically saving my ankle. It wasn’t a tumor that metastasizes like a lot of bad cancers, but it was a locally aggressive thing that would have eaten through the ankle. If you think about a lot of the advances in medicine in the last 20 or 30 years, a lot of the advances in imaging have led to the most important things and led to early diagnoses.

On the nuero side, just being able to unravel how the brain works. In that sense, we’re building the tools. We’re building a better microscope, a better hammer, a better saw — whatever you want. It’s exciting for me to help unravel how the human body works and how the brain works, and then also the possibility that these things can help patient care and help improve quality of life for people with diseases.

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