EITD Director Reflects on How UAB Helped Shape a Career

moradiEITD Director Lee Moradi is pictured in this 2018 file photo with a piece of cold-stowage hardware built for the International Space Station.As a child, Lee Moradi thought of United States as the "Light of the Hill." Today, more than 40 years since he first emigrated from Iran, Moradi has found no place that embodies that American ideal more than at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

“The atmosphere of UAB, from the first time I came here until now, has always been so open and welcoming,” Moradi said. “As an international student, I looked at the people around me and I couldn’t tell much difference between UAB and Washington, D.C. or Los Angeles. It is a cosmopolitan environment that is different from what most people expect from a medium-sized city in Alabama.”

Moradi had no knowledge of UAB or Alabama when he moved to the U.S. in 1975. But when an early encounter brought him to Alabama, he found himself on a path that would repeatedly lead him to opportunities at UAB.

Today, Moradi holds three degrees from the UAB School of Engineering and is director of the school’s Engineering Innovation and Technology Development (EITD) research group. That team of roughly 40 engineers handles more than $50-million in contracts—most of which involve designing, building and maintaining hardware for NASA projects on board the International Space Station.

The EITD team’s success, Moradi says, is largely due to the inclusive environment that, over the course of four decades, kept calling him back. “UAB is a very nurturing university,” Moradi said. “It doesn’t matter where you come from or what discipline you’re in, if you have a curious mind are willing to put in the work, you will find opportunities to be successful here.”

From Tehran to …Boaz?

Moradi was born and raised in Tehran, the capital city of Iran, a country that in the 1960s and 70s was home to more than 100,000 Americans. “I grew up playing soccer and other games with American children,” he said. “That became my dream, to one day live and work in America.”

Ironically, that dream was realized through a disappointment. When Moradi applied to college in Iran, he was not accepted in the majors he had chosen. “They selected a very limited number of students in each discipline,” he said. “When I didn’t get accepted into medicine or engineering, my mother said, ‘Well, you can’t go to school in Iran; you will have to go to America.”

That’s why in the winter of 1975, Moradi found himself alone in Washington, D.C., ready to start a new life as a college student. “The cab driver who picked me up at the airport drove me around the city to show me the monuments. The streets were clean, but there was snow on the ground. It was beautiful. But as excited as I was to be in America, when I spent that first night here alone, I cried.”

Loneliness didn’t last long. Within a few days, Moradi formed friendships with other students from Iran.  But instead of registering for classes at the University of Maryland where had already been accepted, he learned that he would have to take one year of English before he could register for other classes.

“I didn’t want to delay my education,” he said. “Someone told me that if I moved to Alabama, I could take classes immediately at Snead State Junior College. What are the odds that someone in Washington, D.C. would know about Snead State in Boaz, Alabama?”

In spite of the long odds, Moradi and some of his friends made the move to Boaz. Later, he would transfer to Calhoun Community College in Decatur, where he finished his associate’s degree in 1978. A year later, history would repeat itself in a way, when Moradi was enrolled at the University of Tennessee and found rules that encumbered education for immigrants. “My younger brother joined me in Tennessee, but he was still in high school,” Moradi said. “At that time, you couldn’t go to high school in Tennessee unless you had a Green Card. There were no restrictions in Birmingham, so I transferred to UAB.”

Obstacles and Opportunities

In Birmingham, a city that was still largely defined by racial strife of previous decades, Moradi says he found an engineering school with faculty who were strong sources of not only academic inspiration, but also of critical support during a difficult time. “I was a student when the Iran hostage crisis took place, and my world changed overnight,” he said. “I went from being popular to very unpopular. The Iranians I knew were just students, but people were suddenly suspicious of us.”

In that charged environment, Moradi said the engineering faculty were quick to speak up in support of the students, with former Dean Jim Woodward, Ph.D., going so far as to write op-eds for the UAB Reporter urging students to show tolerance and respect for their international classmates.

“That period of time remains vivid in my mind, even today,” Moradi said. “But I don’t remember it as a negative experience. It was a troubling time, but I remember mainly how the professors were so supportive, not just during that crisis, but afterward. They supported me academically, professionally, and personally. Dr. Joe Appleton, the founding dean, in particular, helped me get my first job, and he always pushed me to get a Ph.D.”

Aiming for the Stars

ISS PayloadsAn EITD engineer removes a sample from a rapid-freeze device the team developed for the International Space Station. In 2019, EITD was responsible for 17 simultaneous payloads on board the ISS.Moradi graduated from UAB with a general engineering degree with a focus in structural engineering. With a recommendation from Appleton, he got a job with a local construction firm. But when the economy tanked in 1983, that company went under, and Moradi moved to Huntsville where he found work with firms that did engineering work for NASA and the Department of Defense. Little did he know that that experience in Huntsville would lead him back to UAB.

“In the 1990s, an astronaut named Dr. Larry DeLucas was building a team at UAB to explore protein crystal growth,” Moradi said. “He started the Center for Biophysical Sciences and Engineering, and the research he was doing required engineers with NASA experience.”

Moradi moved back to UAB to work with DeLucas’ team of engineers, which quickly grew to more than 50. Years later, the fervor for that particular area of research began to cool down, but by then the UAB engineers had established themselves with NASA. They were asked to propose on upcoming hardware projects and were able to not only compete with industry leaders like Hamilton Sundstrand and Lockheed Martin, but win.

merlin badge“That was really the beginning of what would become EITD,” Moradi said. “Talk about blessed! None of this was by design. We came here to support Dr. DeLucas’ work in protein crystals, and to do that, we became experts at building thermal carriers. When the protein crystal growth experiments eventually slowed down, the demand for thermal carriers remained.”

Today, EITD is finishing up its third five-year contract and is scheduled to be awarded a fourth contract this fall. The engineering team, which grew to 50 people at the height of the CBSE and later shrank to a low of 16, has grown back to include around 40 engineers.

And in a place where Moradi was once the beneficiary of tolerance and support, he now finds himself as the benefactor for students and young engineers from all over the world. “If there is one secret to my professional success, it is that I have always tried to hire people who are smarter than me, and put them in position to succeed,” Moradi said. “You hear the same type of story over and over at UAB. I feel very fortunate to be a small part of that story.”

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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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