Trailblazer

Darryl Dickerson has conferred with Bill Gates, traveled to Nigeria as the national chair of an organization with 30,000 members, and managed that same multimillion dollar organization with a fulltime staff of 26. And he did all of that before he turned 26 himself.

Dickerson, a PhD student in biomedical engineering who also spent the last year as national chair of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), has indeed accomplished more in his quarter century than most will in a lifetime. But for the young man from New Orleans who anticipates defending his dissertation within the next year, all that experience is just a beginning.

Having attended his hometown Tulane University as an undergrad, Dickerson stayed in the Big Easy to begin his graduate work. He won every fellowship he applied for, including ones from the Ford Foundation, the Department of Defense, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Whitaker Foundation, and the National Science Foundation, though he could only accept the latter two. When the research faculty he was working with at Tulane decided to move on, however, Dickerson’s plans changed too. He ended up following one of his committee members, Eric Nauman, to Purdue.

For the last three years, Dickerson has worked with Nauman, an assistant professor of both biomedical and mechanical engineering, in the cutting-edge field of tissue engineering. “Specifically, hard tissue and soft tissue interfaces,” Dickerson says. “We’re looking at ways to create a scaffold that will reproduce what’s normally seen in the body.”

Dickerson has always been eager to make a difference, and the research in biomedical engineering lends itself to being immediately impactful, as well as potentially helpful to a lot of people. While he anticipates teaching at a university someday, the challenge of starting his own company is an appealing after-school step. “Going the entrepreneurial route really makes sense in the research that I do, and it makes sense from a delivery standpoint,” he says. “If you really want to see something delivered to market you have to be able to bring it to market. Being on the academic side right now, I see where there can be further connections between academia and industry. And I think I have the right experience to be able to bridge that connection.”

Dickerson felt so connected to NSBE, even crediting the organization for his own development, that he decided to run for the national chair position. It proved to be another winning decision. As he juggled his research and studies at Purdue, he traveled monthly to NSBE headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia; kept in frequent contact with staffers through conference calls; and helped develop a strategic plan for the organization’s future. He says the February outreach trip to Nigeria brought home the magnitude of the plan they were working on. “I gained a greater understanding of the urgent need to develop more engineers and specifically minority engineers,” Dickerson says. “The world absolutely needs that sort of intellectual innovation.

“We focused a lot of our efforts on pre-college initiative,” he says. “We’re reaching out to students in lower grades to give them an understanding of engineering.”

Dickerson’s rapport with students and his desire to continue in a mentoring role will likely draw him back to academia, but he’s keeping his career options open. The immediate impact of research could be a strong pull to the marketplace and entrepreneurship. Whichever path he follows, Dickerson’s impressive resume is sure to open some doors.

–William Meiners