Cato T. Laurencin, MD, PhD, lauded for seminal musculoskeletal research
The National Medal of Technology and Innovation is the nation's highest honor for technological achievement and is bestowed by the President of the United States upon America's leading innovators. AAOS member Cato T. Laurencin, MD, PhD, is this year's recipient for "seminal work in the engineering of musculoskeletal tissues, especially for revolutionary achievements in the design of bone matrices and ligament regeneration; and for extraordinary work in promoting diversity and excellence in science."
At the presentation ceremony, President Barack Obama noted that recipients of the National Medal inspire those around them. "They were able to find their calling and do extraordinary things," said President Obama. "So there are few better examples for our young people to follow than the Americans that we honor today."
Dr. Laurencin is the Albert and Wilda Van Dusen Distinguished Endowed Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery at the University of Connecticut. He is the first orthopaedic surgeon in history to be honored with the National Medal of Technology and Innovation. He has written seminal papers and obtained patents on nanofiber technology for tissue regeneration, developed polymer-ceramic composites that have inspired a host of products, and created a first-in-man bioengineered ligament.
"It's very exciting to know that the work that you've done in these different areas in technology has made a difference and helped people, and has been recognized," said Dr. Laurencin.
Dr. Laurencin credits strong mentoring in the development of his career. "I'd always had a strong interest in engineering," he said. "I had attended Princeton as a chemical engineer, decided to revisit my chemical engineering roots, and met a young professor by the name of Robert S. Langer, PhD. He's very well-known now, but he was a young professor at that time, and I was completely impressed by his research into polymeric materials and his overall intellect.
"When I came to Harvard and Massachusetts General Hospital as a medical student, I was very impressed by Henry J. Mankin, MD. He was an outstanding clinician and, at the same time, superb in research and teaching. After being mentored by him, I decided I wanted to be an academic orthopaedic surgeon."
Dr. Laurencin earned his BSE in chemical engineering from Princeton University and his MD magna cum laude from Harvard Medical School. At the same time he earned his PhD in biochemical engineering/biotechnology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), he began his orthopaedic surgery residency concurrent with accepting the position of instructor of biochemical engineering at MIT. "I had a laboratory at MIT, and that was a very transformative phase of my career, because it taught me the discipline to work in both spheres—in my clinical world in orthopaedic surgery and in the research world in terms of running a laboratory and obtaining grants," said Dr. Laurencin. "I obtained my first National Institutes of Health [NIH] grant in my first or second year, and I obtained a National Science Foundation grant after that. Since then I've been continuously federally funded."
Dr. Laurencin is a University Professor at the University of Connecticut, the eighth in the school's 130-year history. He has laboratories at the university's medical school and the engineering school, and his students have broad backgrounds that cover engineering, medicine, biology, and chemistry. "It makes for a great environment for conducting research," he said.
The first orthopaedic surgeon to be elected to both the National Academy of Medicine and the National Academy of Engineering, he recently announced his goal of regenerating an entire limb by the year 2030. His research was recently awarded the NIH Director's Pioneer Award, its highest research award; he is the first orthopaedic surgeon to receive such funding. His work in musculoskeletal regeneration has been recognized internationally. He is an elected member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, and a fellow (foreign) of the National Academy of Sciences of India as well as a fellow (foreign) of the African Academy of Sciences.
Dr. Laurencin cites five aspects of his professional career as highlights.
"I feel blessed to be able to be an orthopaedic surgeon and take care of patients. Second, I feel blessed to mentor and develop students, many of whom have become my colleagues and friends. Seeing many of them go on to mentor others is really fantastic. Third, I've been able to sketch on a pad or a napkin an idea for a new technology, and then conduct research through to seeing a version of that technology functioning in patients. Making that type of contribution is exciting. Fourth, I've had the honor of being a department chair, a medical school dean, a university vice-president, and now the director of institutes. Leading and creating change on a large scale is very rewarding. Finally, doing everything in the context of family is very important to me. Doing all of this in the world in which they are growing up and maturing—being an integral part of their lives—is the real reward."
Peter Pollack is the electronic content specialist for AAOS Now. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org