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By Christina Crowe
Thirty years ago, Alan Eberhardt, Ph.D., joined UAB faculty as an assistant professor of mechanical engineering before moving over to the UAB Department of Biomedical Engineering in 1999. Today he serves as Professor and Associate Chair of Education for the department and celebrates being named a recipient of the 2021 Graduate Dean’s Award for Excellence in Mentorship.

eberhardt 230Eberhardt will be recognized for his commitment to mentoring during a virtual ceremony on Monday, April 19. He was nominated by his graduate student John Easton, who has worked with Eberhardt in his lab for the past two years.

“I was kind of surprised to win,” Eberhardt says. “To me, mentoring means providing the opportunity for students to succeed, and challenging them to grow. When I hire students, I always warn them that I’m not going to be in the lab a lot—I provide them with projects to tackle, and it’s up to them to sink or swim. I’m really grateful when students rise to the challenge.”

Eberhardt admits this style does not work for everyone and says he has had, “some disasters.” But the success of his students and their obvious admiration for him speaks volumes.

“I recently got a note from a student I mentored over 20 years ago, who took the time to write and thank me,” he says. “I try to encourage balance in their lives. I don’t want them at their desks 18 hours a day. I tell them: Take your papers and read them at a coffee shop; go for a run; if it’s great weather, sit outside and work and think.”

Eberhardt lives by this mantra, which he has learned to adopt in his more than three decades in academia. He earned his Ph.D. in theoretical and applied mechanics from Northwestern University, after majoring in civil engineering as an undergraduate and master’s student at the University of Delaware. Eberhardt is an Alabama native who grew up in New Jersey. He says upon graduating with his Ph.D., he applied for 75 academic jobs and received only one interview, at UAB.

“I had a great interview,” he recalls. He got the job and the rest, as they say, is history.

“Dr. Eberhardt is a stalwart member of the BME faculty who has contributed greatly to our educational program,” says Jianyi “Jay” Zhang, M.D., Ph.D., Professor and Chair, UAB Department of Biomedical Engineering. “He has designed many of our courses, and continues to innovate in the development of new classes. He has mentored dozens of students, who have become successful in their engineering careers. We are lucky to have him on our team and as a teacher.”

Eberhardt has worked with many mentors in the BME Department including Jack Lemons, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus and Linda Lucas, Ph.D., former department chair and Dean of the School of Engineering. He says he is grateful to his collaborators in the Department of Orthopedic Surgery and the many physical therapists he has worked with over the course of his career. Most recently, Drs. Jim Rimmer (UAB/Lakeshore Research Collaborative) and Dave Brown (University of Texas Medical Branch) have had a powerful impact on Eberhardt’s career, providing invaluable guidance for his work in rehabilitation engineering.

Eberhardt teaches numerous classes—he taught five last year—and taught a new course in the spring 2021 semester, Engineering Problem Solving, which he describes as “math for budding engineers.” He has supervised several Ph.D. students’ theses and nearly three dozen masters’ theses.

This mentoring award is not the first recognition Eberhardt has received during his time at UAB. In 2012 he received the Ellen Gregg Ingalls UAB National Alumni Society Lifetime Teaching Achievement. He was awarded the President’s Award for Excellence in Teaching in Biomedical Engineering twice, in 2000 and 2006, and by the School of Engineering in 2002.

Eberhardt’s trusting mentoring style has led to the support of several very successful students, including Easton.

“His passion is for his students, and it shows,” Easton says. “I was shocked that he hadn’t received this award yet, and I think the overwhelming amount of support from his past mentees reflects that sentiment. I am so glad he finally got it.”

Eberhardt echoes Easton’s praise.

“I can’t say enough about John. He came in with a kinesiology degree, and wasn’t even in engineering. He has been working double duty the last six months on his project and running my lab,” Eberhardt says.

“I really let the students run the show. I am looking for students who like to work on their own, be self-driven, and self-motivated. I tell students: you really need to be self-directed. This is your future; I’m laying out an opportunity for you to succeed. I’ll be your guide, but I won’t be looking over your shoulder.”