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.”

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BioHorizons is a Birmingham company whose history is rooted in UAB. Today, thanks to a growing and successful co-op program, it appears that BioHorizons and UAB will continue to be linked far into the future.

The dental-implant company, which started as a spinoff of research from the UAB Schools of Engineering and Dentistry, has hired more than a dozen UAB alumni and students over the past 28 years. More recently, though, its co-op program has begun to bring in current engineering undergraduates—creating a talent pipeline for students to get a head start in a growing industry.

“Hands-on experience has always been a key element of engineering education,” said Neil Adams, director of the Engineering Career Center. “The success of our program depends on strong co-op and intern partners, like BioHorizons, who offer quality experiences to our students so that they apply their engineering knowledge while also learning how to be a contributing part of a professional organization. We are proud of this continued partnership and look forward to supporting Blazer engineering co-ops at BioHorizons for many years to come.”

A Blazer Legacy

BioHorizons was started in 1995 by the late Martha Bidez, Ph.D., then a faculty member in the School of Engineering who would serve as the company’s first CEO before selling the company and returning to UAB in 2009. Over the years, the company has hired a number of UAB alumni, including several members of its leadership team (see sidebar).

In 2016, however, the company’s ties to UAB got a little closer when Ashley Boggs became the first UAB undergraduate to join the BioHorizons co-op program—a program that provides students the opportunity to work full-time at the company for three semesters, alternating with school. The experience is paid, and students work alongside engineers throughout their time at the company.

Boggs extended her co-op by working part-time at the company until she was hired full time after she graduated in 2018. Today, she is a Digital Dentistry Engineering Manager, and she credits her co-op experience for opening her eyes to possibilities she had never previously considered.

“I had a vague idea that I wanted to work with implants—like hips, knees, ankles—but I didn’t know anything about the dental-implant industry at all,” said Boggs. “During my sophomore year, I went to the Engineering Career Center and told them that I couldn’t keep sitting in class doing problems from a book. They told me about a local company called BioHorizons that was doing on-campus interviews.”

The interview changed Boggs’s personal career trajectory, but her story is not an unusual one. While the engineering curriculum prepares students for a wide variety of careers, it’s often that first on-the-job experience that opens eyes and doors to career opportunities in fields students may have never been aware of.

That was the case for UAB graduate Jonathan Gordon, another former co-op participant who now works as a packaging engineer for BioHorizons. “I started out on a pre-med track, but coming from a very small town to UAB was a big transition,” Gordon said. “I dropped the pre-med route pretty quickly and started looking for other options.”

Like Boggs, the Engineering Career Center helped connect Gordon with a co-op position at BioHorizons, and that, in turn, led to full-time employment. “I realized pretty quickly that I love this industry. It’s exciting to be a part of this.”

An Undergraduate Pipeline

Although Boggs was the first UAB student hired into BioHorizons' co-op program, she soon had company. Three other Blazers followed her into the program (Josh Moore, Karly Casey and Gordon), and all four stayed on to work full-time. That kind of retention is notable for an undergraduate experience that by its nature is often exploratory. 

“Since we started the co-op program about 10 years ago, we have had about 17-18 engineering students in our program—two of which have been in our regulatory department and the rest in research and development,” said Tom Lewis, BioHorizons manager of product engineering. “We feel that it has been very successful, and to date we have hired five as full-time employees.”

That transition from co-op to full-time employee makes sense when you consider the investment BioHorizons makes in students over a three-semester co-op. Each student must learn Quality System processes before getting down to work with tasks, such as design control, drawing release, and CAD modeling. “Each student is trained, but it takes hands-on involvement to learn all of these processes,” Lewis said. “It’s also helpful for students to experience how different departments work together for a common goal.”

In addition, students must learn industry standards and technologies in the medical device industry. “This takes longer,” Lewis said, “but over time they begin to understand the ‘whys’ behind the design of dental implants, restorative components and instruments. Although we have the expectation that co-ops produce for us, my hope is that when they look back they realize the value of their experience here, and as they move into their careers they have a head start in their understanding of engineering organizations."

“Co-op is both an investment by the company and a commitment by the student,” added Adams. “The depth of experience pays dividends in that co-op students are ready to contribute immediately at an organization after graduation.”


“I have been part of teams in which we have drawn and developed state of the art dental surgery kits that are slated to hit the market this year; I have managed drafting and conducting test plans to research the durability of implant designs; and, most importantly, I have been able to teach incoming co-ops the ins and outs of the company and guide them as they grow from a college student into true engineers.”
—Benjamin Pody, mechanical engineering student and 2nd-year co-op


Homegrown Talent

Lewis says the co-op program historically has drawn from several area universities, but he admits UAB students have one obvious advantage. “Since they are local, they already have living arrangements,” he said. “After completing the three co-op terms, students return to school to finish up and graduate.  With UAB being in town, when the opportunity was available several UAB students have stayed on and worked part-time until graduation.  The company knowledge they have has allowed them to be productive even on a part-time basis.”

While the growth of BioHorizons’ co-op program is exciting for current and future engineering students, UAB School of Engineering Dean Jeff Holmes, M.D., Ph.D., says that is just one of the reasons UAB engineers should look at the BioHorizons story with pride.

“It’s not unusual for a promising startup to spin off from university research—in this case, arising from research in the UAB Schools of Engineering and Dentistry,” said Holmes. “We often comment that these startups have the potential to revolutionize an industry. But in the case of BioHorizons, it has actually done that, and it continues to innovate and to grow. I am tremendously excited that our students are able to be a part of that continuing UAB success story.”

“At BioHorizons, we look forward to continuing our work with UAB in the future,” agreed Lewis. “We appreciate the relationship we have developed with the university that has served us well over the years.”


BioHorizons Senior Leadership

A glance at the BioHorizons team shows a number of UAB graduates among the senior leadership.

R. Steve Boggan, President and CEO

  •   M.S. in Biomedical Engineering from UAB

J. Todd Strong, Executive VP and COO

  •   M.S. in Biomedical Engineering from UAB

Mike Mills, Executive VP and CFO

  •   B.S. from UAB Collat School of Business

Andrew Baroody, VP of Sales Operations

  •   B.A. in English from UAB

Juan Jaramillo, VP of Global Business Support

  •   UAB Graduate

Fred J. Molz, IV, VP of Research and Development

  •   M.S. and Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering from UAB

Elbert Jenkins II, VP of Information Technology

  •   MEng in Information Engineering Management from UAB
  •   MBA from the UAB Collat School of Business

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