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Dr. Ephraim Gutmark: 2018 Excellence in Mentoring Doctoral Students Award

Dr. Ephraim Gutmark explains an aspect of engineering to his students.

When I sit down with Dr. Ephraim Gutmark (or Effie, as is his nickname) I already know several things about him. I know he is a distinguished professor of aerospace engineering at UC and professor of otolaryngology at UC's College of Medicine. I know he is an Ohio Regents Eminent Scholar, most recently being presented with the prestigious 2018 Excellence in Mentoring Doctoral Students award. I have a further list of awards he has won over the past decade or two, and an even longer list of his formal accomplishments. I do not realize, however, how great a cappuccino he makes. Yes, he has a cappuccino machine in his office. Extra foam, even. He tells me, “It’s better than Starbucks,” and I agree. He sits down and smiles warmly, and we begin to talk about aerospace engineering and, more specifically, how his presence has influenced it.

Dr. Gutmark came to UC in 2000, after working as the chair of mechanical engineering at Louisiana State University and teaching at the University of Southern California, then spending ten years in the Navy teaching and developing new technology. Before that he was in Israel, working and living and completing degrees. As for aerospace engineering, it’s been a lifelong fixation.

“I was always interested in engineering,” he tells me, “Not only that, but ever since I was six years old I knew I wanted to be an aerospace engineer. Somehow. Aerospace just interested me because of rockets and airplanes and space. I don’t know if, when I was six, I really knew what engineering even meant. But I thought airplanes and rockets were cool. I knew I wanted to do something with aerospace.”

He goes on. “If you study something you are interested in, it’s easier. It won’t be boring. It will be fun. Of course, to get there, you still need hard work. And when you get to the real part of engineering and designing things, that’s where the real fun is."

Dr. Gutmark explains to me what the real fun actually is—doing the research, going to the lab, working with the students. When he speaks you can tell he is genuinely excited to be discussing his job, to be letting an outsider briefly peer into his world of research and mentoring. “There’s always something interesting to do,” he tells me, “and it only gets better. What’s next? Another conference, more research, preparing for another talk, helping my students get ready for presentations and dissertations. I enjoy it all. I always tell my kids, I’m really lucky. I get to do what I like to do.”

It seems that along with hardworking and smart, grateful and humble are two words that describe the talented professor. For someone who feels so lucky, his work does seem outrageously hard. But perhaps that explains the endless list of awards and titles which accompany his name. A blurb of his achievements include developing breakthrough research implemented by GE, Boeing, and surgeons at both Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and UC Health. In terms of what he deems as good research, he explains to me that the more applicable the research, the better. He mentions the research he conducted for GE, on the reduction of jet noise, and his eyes light up. “I have many patents on that, mostly for GE. So this helped make airplanes quieter, and I see that as good research. It’s applicable. It enables machines to work better.”

Dr. Gutmark explains aspects of engineering  to his students.

Beyond this, he tells me how his own lab touches on many different veins of engineering—fluid dynamics, combustion, detonation, acoustics, and medicine. He explains to me that aerospace engineering contains a multitude of disciplines—mechanical engineering, electrical, materials, structures— “it has pretty much any area of engineering,” he says. “It’s such a broad discipline. It gives you a wide background.” This makes perfect sense to me. But Dr. Gutmark then says something that I find surprising. He says that once you develop this background in aerospace engineering, that you can easily move on to different areas, specifically medicine. Which is exactly what he chose to do.

Yes, you read that right. Dr. Gutmark is also a professor of medicine. Aerospace engineering, as it turns out, can be very closely related to the workings of the human body. He tells me, “The ability to tackle so many different sciences allows you to do pretty much whatever you’re interested in doing. That’s what I really like about aerospace engineering. It gave me this ability to go wherever I wish to go.”

For the first time since our conversation started, Dr. Gutmark takes a sip of his cappuccino. Mine is almost entirely gone. When he speaks of medicine he is confident and calm, much like the way he is when speaking of engineering. For the last twelve years he has been working with UC physicians, specifically ENT (ear, nose, throat) surgeons, developing a new surgical procedure to help individuals struggling with vocal cord issues. The procedure is based in aerospace ideals and structured around the physics of how voice works. “That explanation, the physics of how we actually produce voice,” Gutmark explains, “comes from aerospace engineering principles.” What’s more, he’s also worked with physicians at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center developing new ways to combat irregular blood flow in arteries. It seems flow of any kind, be it aerial or vascular, is something an aerospace engineer can assist with.

Dr. Myles Pensak, Department Chair of Otolaryngology at UC Health and one of the physicians who works closely with Dr. Gutmark, says this of his colleague: “Effie has been intimately involved with our department as a mentor and teacher of the highest order. His candor, earnestness, and passionate curiosity has fomented enhanced clinical discovery science; as well as generating further questioning of current clinical paradigms.”

When I ask Dr. Gutmark if he enjoys this unexpected career swerve into medicine, he smiles. “It’s very fulfilling. There’s almost an immediate outcome. You see that you are helping someone. Something good is coming from your work. In engineering it often takes ten, twenty years for something significant to even come out of your research. And in medicine, you sometimes have almost automatic results. The doctor changes a surgery, the patient is now able to breathe; someone chooses a different technique, the patient is now doing better and showing improvement. It’s a very good feeling to know what you’re doing is useful and helping people.”

Maybe I should mention here that all three of Gutmark’s children work in medicine: two eye surgeons and one pediatric endocrinologist. And his children are the place his mentoring begins; the advice he gives as a father is the same advice he gives his students as a professor and mentor. He tells me he considers this the “general golden advice.” Absolutely never close doors. And while you’re busy not closing doors, make sure to try and excel in everything you do, “because eventually all these open doors will give you more opportunities. Opportunities that you don’t expect will come up. The more you leave the doors open, the more possibilities come through, and the more freedom you have to direct yourself in the way you want to go.”

Outside my conversation with Dr. Gutmark, I do some digging. And I find letters written as testimonial for Gutmark’s Excellence in Mentoring nomination, by current and former students recommending their professor for the award because they truly believe their mentor to be the best of the best. The letters, although superlative, are not surprising considering Dr. Gutmark’s Cincinnati track record, and I will share the quotes which stuck out to me in particular.

Dr. Daniel Cuppoletti, a past student of Gutmark’s and current postdoctoral fellow at the National Academies of Science and Engineering, says, “[Dr. Gutmark] would never end a meeting if further discussion was warranted, often staying late into the evening to help the students think through problems.” Goutham Mylavarapu, now a research associate in the Division of Pulmonary Medicine at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, became sick as a student and needed extensive hospitalization during his academic studies. He says, “Dr. Gutmark has a wonderful and good-natured personality. In 2011, I was seriously ill for 4 months. He extended an invaluable moral and personal support during that period. He followed up on my health every few days and took care of my academic needs due to my extended absence from the university.” Dr. Daniel Allgood, an engineer at the NASA Stennis Space Center, says “[Dr. Gutmark’s] mentoring extended beyond the laboratory into the classroom. [He] was the only professor I was aware of that took the time to assist his doctorate students in formulating a rigorous study plan for the qualifying exams and did not hesitate in any way in providing unlimited one-on-one time to answer questions regarding our studies.”

What’s more, despite being a professor for nearly five decades (his very first teaching gig was in 1969), he still approaches every aspect of his job with the goal of learning in mind. The teacher remains a student at heart. He tells me, “I like to learn from everybody—every conversation, you learn from it. When I talk to my students, I learn a lot from them. It’s one of the nicest things about being a professor, always staying in touch with young people. They always have different perspectives, different ways of looking at things. In this way I have many mentors. My students, and my colleagues in the department, too. I’m always learning something new.”

As we’re finishing the interview, Dr. Gutmark tells me perhaps the most endearing piece of information I’ve ever heard. He says the office in which he works everyday was once the office of Neil Armstrong, first man on the moon and fellow University of Cincinnati professor of aerospace engineering. Dr. Gutmark was once a six year old who wanted to become an engineer because he liked “rockets and airplanes and space.” He now occupies the same space and looks out the same window Professor Armstrong once did. Everything comes full circle. 

Written by Danniah Daher, graduate assistant to the graduate school office.