“I always thought that science was the only thing I was supposed to do,” says Professor of Bioengineering Victor G. J. Rodgers. Growing up, he and his twin brother competed academically; “I think [being competitive] helped to keep us focused on science, even when we were kids.” His parents encouraged their interest, even though they were not scientists themselves.
Today Rodgers’ brother is a theoretical physicist, and Victor Rodgers — who joined UCR in 2006 — has distinguished himself as a leader in teaching, research and in promoting the engagement of underrepresented students in STEM fields.
An active and visible advocate for diversity, he received the 2016 Commitment to Graduate Diversity award. With his involvement in the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science and the GEM consortium (a network of corporations, laboratories, universities and research institutions that enable students from underrepresented communities to pursue graduate education in applied science and engineering), “he has helped to make Bourns College of Engineering’s diversity recruitment record truly outstanding over the last several years,” said Graduate Dean Joseph Childers.
Rodgers studies the fundamentals of transport phenomena, mathematical modeling, thermodynamics and kinetics. A lot of his research focuses on ways chemical engineering can be applied to the development of biomedical and biological systems, and he collaborates with colleagues at medical schools and pharmaceutical and bioscience programs, including UCR’s School of Medicine.
A fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering, Rodgers was named the inaugural Jacques S. Yeager Sr. Professor of Bioengineering in 2014.
How did you end up studying chemical engineering?
I [was always into science so] it didn’t matter what science I was going to pursue. Even when I was in engineering, I was undeclared because I wanted to solve health or environmental problems, but I didn’t know what major would do that. I figured that I needed to know chemistry. So I became a chemical engineer.
So being competitive with your twin was instrumental to your love of science. Were your parents just like, “Here’s a lab set, have at it?”
Yes. My mom was a nurse and my dad was the editor of a black newspaper in St. Louis, Missouri. Even though we didn’t have a lot of money, they would always find a way to buy us things like a science kit for Christmas, or a microscope. We would always be very happy to get those kinds of things.
How did you end up marrying chemical engineering and medical research?
After I graduated (from the University of Dayton, Ohio), I worked at an oil company for a while, and then I started taking a course at Carnegie Mellon University under Rakesh Jain, a professor in chemical engineering who also studied biomedical engineering. And he was very inspirational. He told me I should go into academia.
That must have been an interesting shift, going from a corporation to academia.
Well, my goal was always to use [my studies] for environmental health issues, but at the time schools were driving [us into] chemical engineering. I didn’t really have any background to go into graduate school at that point so I took a job at Gulf Oil, where I did research and development. The other Ph.D.s in my department inspired me to get my Ph.D., too, so I went to the University of Pittsburgh full time and I got my master’s. Then I went to Washington University in St. Louis and got my Ph.D. Then I went to University of Iowa for 17 years as a professor of chemical engineering. Even in Iowa, I was working with medical doctors on bioartificial pancreas and things like that. But then, there was an opportunity to come to UCR and start up a bioengineering program. It seemed pretty cool. I got a chance to go to California.
You’ve been at UCR since 2006, then.
Yeah, I really like it. There’s a lot of opportunity and growth when you’re starting a program. We’re still on a growth phase with our bioengineering program and it’s still really exciting.
How has the opening of the School of Medicine impacted your research?
Most of my work [in the medical field] has been with Dr. Devin Binder, who is also a neurosurgeon. We are studying cerebral edema, how the brain swells up in the tissue. He wanted to measure how much water was in it, and I remember proposing it to him to just remove it. We published papers on our cerebral brain injury work and developed a device that could remove [edema].
Are you using your endowment to fund the research on cerebral edema?
We’re extremely grateful for the Yeager grant; it is a blessing in every sense of the word. I can use that money to get preliminary data, to propose and get larger grants, which can ultimately solve these real problems.
Do you do more research than teaching?
I do both. I’m a professor. Research takes a lot of time, but teaching is important because it is exciting to see young people’s minds kicking off.
What do you like most about being at UCR?
It is one of the most diverse populations I have ever seen. It’s actually really amazing, and not just to me. People that come to visit us bring it up. It’s not just a mix of a couple groups but of a lot of different ethnic groups here. And I think that was one of the selling points that made me come here.
They always say that engineering is one of the less diverse populations. Is that true?
Absolutely true. Especially when you look at (professorships), engineering lacks both female faculty and underrepresented minorities: Hispanics and African- Americans. But you know, when I got my Ph.D. I was one of three black people in the country with Ph.D.s in chemical engineering that year. You see graphics on diversity, and the charts for Hispanics, African-Americans and women going into engineering as professors has flat-lined. It’s a really low number. It’s so low that it’s almost an emergency situation. There’s a lot of talk on what the country is doing for diversity, but not a lot of results at all in the end.
What do you want to leave as your legacy?
I always want to do some good because there’s billions of people and billions of opportunities. I just want to be a part of the human energy that is doing positive things for the planet. So that’s what my goal is. I don’t have any notion on taking over the world or anything. I want to be part of that group that’s treating people right and is doing great science at the same time.
What work are you most proud of?
I am most proud of my osmotic pressure work. We were looking at crowded protein environments; no one could figure it out for 50 years, but we figured it out.
About the Jacques S. Yeager Sr. Professorship in Bioengineering
The Jacques S. Yeager Sr. Professorship in Bioengineering supports a talented teacher and researcher at the Bourns College of Engineering who has a research affiliation with the university’s School of Medicine.
Yeager, who passed away in April (read his obituary on Page 37) was extensively engaged in philanthropy with UCR. In 1953, E.L. Yeager Construction graded the land for the new UC Riverside campus, and Jacques Yeager and his brother Eugene Yeager helped direct the pouring of the cement “C” on the hillside above the campus.
Yeager is a founding trustee of the UC Riverside Foundation Board and served as chair from 1994 to 1997. He was appointed by Gov. George Deukmejian as a regent of the University of California, serving from 1988 to 1994. Yeager was elected fellow of BCOE in 2012.