Andy Cornwell ’01, along with a team of equally brilliant researchers, is challenging the boundaries of modern medicine for people suffering from paralysis and other neurological disorders.
Cornwell, in collaboration with Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) and the Cleveland Functional Electrical Stimulation (FES) Center, has pursued his interest in reanimating the nervous systems of paralyzed patients through electrical stimulation since his triple-major days at the College (biochemistry, mathematics and chemistry) and throughout his master’s and Ph.D. programs at CWRU. When he wasn’t working in a science lab or mathematics textbook as an undergraduate, Cornwell delved into liberal arts disciplines at the College and joined the sailing team, serving as its captain his senior year. Balance has been key to his success as both a scientist and professional.
Q: What is Functional Electrical Stimulation?
A: FES is a technique that we employ through small implanted medical devices we place inside patients. These devices communicate with the patient’s nervous system through small electrical pulses to restore functions like breathing, walking or controlling limbs by stimulating nerves that the brain can no longer stimulate on its own, or by impeding nerve activity that’s detrimental to the patient.
For example, we can stimulate the diaphragm of someone who’s had a severe spinal cord injury, so they don’t have to use a ventilator. Or we can stimulate in the spinal cord to help mask or eliminate chronic pain.
Q: What do you do at FES?
A: I’m the director of industrial and strategic collaborations, so although my background is focused on the science and research part of FES, I now concentrate on finding partners for the Cleveland FES Center to work with. I spend a lot of time talking with principal researchers about their progress and their goals, and also talking to commercial partners about their research goals, and then setting up collaborations that match up. I often act as a liaison between our researchers and our commercial partners.
Q: What do you like most about your job?
A: That I get to interact with so many different people, and the people I get to interact with are at the peak of their field – they’re the best researchers and the best medical device companies. It’s really exciting to speak with people who are always so capable, smart, willing and engaging.
It can be very difficult to commercialize university research, so it’s rewarding to be in a place where I can really make things happen with this research. It feels like I’m making a difference. The people we work with have severe disabilities, and the technology we develop really improves their lives. That’s very satisfying.
Q: What was the interview process like for your job?
A: This position was just recently created; I’m the first holder of this job. The interview process was very straightforward – I got my Ph.D. at CWRU and I had actually been conducting biomedical research for a number of years until the Cleveland FES Center recently made a push to increase our relevance to medical device companies. They just created this position and asked me to fill it. They recognized that I have a diverse background and that I will work hard to get this stuff accomplished.
Q: Your current position is very different than what your education prepared you for – how has the adjustment been?
A: This is where the College comes in, because what a liberal arts education really teaches is how to learn new things and to adapt. So bringing the breadth of experience that I had from the college has really served me well in making this transition.
Increasingly, and even for people with advanced degrees, your ultimate position may not be in the area you’ve been training in. Rather than doing exactly what you were trained to do, the ability to transfer sets of skills to different areas is more and more important. The people who are successful are the ones who can apply their skills and be flexible, and I think liberal arts education is the backbone of that ability.
Q: What was it like being in higher education for 15 years straight?
A: I really enjoyed it. I enjoy the university and college environments. A college campus is a very unique and special place to be – you are constantly interacting with a diverse set of people, and the quality of discourse is very high-level and thoughtful. I was ready to be done, though. Being a graduate student doesn’t pay terribly well.
Q: How did your time at the College help you prepare for your job?
A: I had excellent advisors who I still talk to, like Caroline Hunt in the Department of English, and Pam Gelasco and Rick Heldrich in Chemistry. When I was in college they really took the time to recognize my goals and help me get in classes and programs that would help me accomplish them. It was very personal advising. They really took the time to help me as an individual, which was unique. I learned a lot of great stuff in courses but having mentors is crucial.
Q: What advice would you offer to current students interested in the biomedical engineering field?
A: I think no matter what your profession (I’ve found this true in science and industry), a solid grasp of the English language is very important. You have to be able to write and communicate effectively, it’s far and away the most important skill for any undergraduate to master. A deep understanding of math is the next thing, especially in biomedical research.
When I was at the College, I felt that I was in an environment focused on academic freedom and civil discourse. I valued the small-school feel and the personal attention I got as an undergraduate, and the core skills that came with my liberal arts education, so my advice would be to take full advantage of those opportunities while you’re a student.