Alumnus Neal Fearnot shares his best advice for graduate students

Neal Fearnot, president of MED Institute Incorporated and Cook Advanced Technologies, and Vice President of Cook Group Incorporated, delivered his best advice for graduate students in a special presentation of the Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering Summer Seminar Series.
Neal Fearnot, president of MED Institute Incorporated and Cook Advanced Technologies, and Vice President of Cook Group Incorporated, delivered his best advice for graduate students in a special presentation of the Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering Summer Seminar Series.

Over the course of an hour, Fearnot regaled the attendees with stories about his student days, the inception of biomedical engineering at Purdue, and the life-changing lessons about communication and leadership he picked up along the way.

Fearnot studied at Purdue under the late Leslie Geddes, receiving his bachelor's degree in electrical engineering in 1975, master's degree in 1978, and PhD in 1980.  Just three years out of graduate school, he launched MED Institute which grew into a full-service medical device development company that provides supporting services of clinical research, non-clinical and pre-clinical testing, medical and scientific writing, and regulatory strategy.  In 1995, he served as founding president of Cook Biotech, a tissue-engineered product manufacturer, and in 2009 he started Cook Advanced Technologies, a technology development company.  

Fearnot’s career took off like a rocket, and he feels the Purdue experience and the Summer Seminar Series laid the foundation for his success.

Fearnot was an undergraduate student when a sea change occurred for biomedical engineering at Purdue. “In 1974, there was a group of four people who showed up at Purdue. I was there when they showed up and helped unpack the boxes,” he said. The “Fab Four,” now considered the fathers of biomedical engineering at Purdue, had just arrived: Leslie Geddes, Willis Tacker, Joe Bourland, and Charles Babbs came from Baylor Medical College to expand Biomedical Engineering at Purdue.

Their arrival didn’t signal just a new era for biomedical engineering at Purdue, it had a profound influence on the personal and professional development of the young Fearnot.

“In 1977, I remember the faculty got together and decided that it was important that people learn to communicate if they were going to have a successful science career.” Fearnot said. “Dr. Geddes wanted people to think very clearly, to speak very articulately, and to lead in whatever they do.” Geddes envisioned that every Purdue biomedical engineering graduate student could be in the top half of presenters at national meetings, and he wanted to give students a platform to prepare.  The Summer Seminar Series was born.

In Summer Seminar, biomedical engineering doctoral students give a presentation on their research the summer after completing their second year in the program. School faculty, staff and students provide oral and written feedback on the research and presentation content and style. Students can use the feedback to refine their presentation skills and address critical questions raised by audience members.

It’s a tradition that continues to this day, 42 years later, and according to Fearnot, it can prepare you for the unpredictable situations that life throws at you.

When Fearnot was a graduate student, he got one of those surprises from Geddes. He was invited by Geddes to attend a talk Geddes was giving to the local Rotary Club. The talk related to the history of blood pressure, a topic that Fearnot had studied. Midway through the talk, Geddes introduced Fearnot, indicated that Fearnot would take over, and sat down, forcing Fearnot to finish the talk with no preparation. Fearnot said he was able to finish the talk because he understood the science so well.

This was lesson number one: Know your subject so well that you can speak about it with three seconds of preparation.

“Knowing the science comes through hands-on, rigorous, scientific training. If we don’t stay current on our science, we’re pretending, and pretending doesn’t work in a career,” he said. Much later, Fearnot learned that it’s not enough to know the science cold; you have to know it best. “If you don’t know your subject better than everyone else in the world, you don’t know it well enough.”

As president of MED Institute, Fearnot attended public panel meetings at the FDA and led a team that was “grilled for 6 to 8 hours nonstop” about his company’s medical products to determine whether or not the products were ready to be made available to the market. “If you say anything incorrect in those 6 to 8 hours, it is on federal record and you are liable,” he said, noting that it would be a federal offense. “I participated in several panel meetings, with unanimous recommendation for approval. All of those products were commercialized. The [Summer Seminar] training was good.”

The takeaway: practice public speaking in Summer Seminar and be lifelong learners. “The day you stop learning is the day you are no longer relevant,” he said. “You can think you know science, but what you know is yesterday’s science. The question is, do you know tomorrow’s science? That is a hard job, to keep learning.” Fearnot advised students to keep building their knowledge in a variety of ways: attend seminars, read journals, continue their education, and talk to friends and colleagues. “That moment will come when someone says, where are we going next? And you can only answer that if your head is focused on where science is going next.”

Another key to Fearnot’s success was learning how to work with people from different backgrounds. In the 1970s, Geddes tasked Fearnot with helping to run a one-week Multiethnic Introduction to Engineering program that brought minority high school students to Purdue to learn about engineering. Fearnot said Geddes challenged him to connect with these students, and it took him a while to figure out how to do that.

One day Fearnot wired a loud speaker to a blood pressure cuff. He put the cuff on one of the program participants and began to inflate the cuff. “When they heard korotkoff sounds from their own heart beating, I finally figured out how to connect with these younger students,” he said. “They were shocked that there were sounds coming out of their arm, and they began to be interested in blood pressure.”  It was an early lesson about the value of knowing how to connect with others that stayed with Fearnot for life. “I have learned that connecting with various cultures, which I’ve had to do in my career, started with that, with trying to interact and connect with people from various backgrounds and walks in life while I was still at Purdue.”

Since then, Fearnot has worked with governments in nearly every country. He has been active in initiatives to promote global harmonization of medical device approval regulations and has provided input into development of legislation or regulations in the US, Japan, India, Taiwan, EU, Panama, Bahamas, and Mexico. 

“Across the world the ability to communicate what needs to happen to get a product safely on a market and safely used in people in a really imperfect world takes the ability to think, to speak clearly, and to lead,” he said.

On the topic of leadership, Fearnot allocated nearly half of his talk to the characteristics of leaders, tools of leadership, and best leadership practices. He said he learned by emulating Purdue faculty who were exemplars of leadership, but he also did a lot of self-study after he graduated from Purdue.  

“The thing that has taken most of my time in my career to figure out how to have an impact is about leadership skills,” he said. He provided many resources to the audience for developing leadership skills, and gave a roundup of some favorite tips:

  • Pursue personality and self-assessment tools to understand yourself as a person and as a leader.  Such tools can help you know who you are, what you are good at, how you interact with others, and how you can best have impact. “Some people go through all the same motions; they have no impact, because they didn’t get this part right,” he said.
  • It’s nice to be important, but it’s far more important to be nice.
  • Hire exceptional people, and build up the people around you.
  • As a leader, take the blame for anything that goes wrong and be generous in giving credit to the team when things go right.
  • Have single-minded relentless pursuit of a goal.
  • Learn about and use decision-making tools.
  • Pursue motivational and situational assessment tools to be professional in your assessment of people and to help determine what motivates people.
  • Have mentors. Fearnot said he had six mentors, including Geddes and Babbs, who met with him monthly for lunch for 15 years, and that made a huge impact on his career.

“From being absolutely scared to death of being in front of anybody and saying anything to speaking globally many, many times a year was a great learning curve. It really is a journey. I’m not done with the journey yet,” he said.

To inspire students to use Summer Seminar as a platform to learn, Fearnot established the Fearnot-Laufman-Greatbatch Award. The award is presented to the student who gives the most outstanding presentation of the summer. The selection is determined by evaluations submitted by faculty, students, and staff in attendance at the seminars. The winner gets a cash prize and an individual plaque. The winner’s name is engraved on a permanent plaque on display in the Martin C. Jischke Hall of Biomedical Engineering.

In closing, Fearnot said this was his best advice, and he hoped that it helped students have meaningful lives and careers: “The majority of people work a whole career and have no sustained impact. I am not interested in that. I am not interested in that for any of you. A career of impact is a whole lot of fun. It’s a whole lot of fun looking forward. It’s a whole lot of fun in the moment. And it’s a whole lot of fun looking back. I wish that for you. I’m hoping that you will get there, that you will have the ability to impact the practice of medicine, to change society, to change something in a major way.”