Although the old adage claims that experience is the best teacher, it might have to settle for second place this year, thanks to the efforts of Dr. Evgeny N. Vulfson, the Polytechnic Institute of New York University (NYU-Poly) Industry Professor of Biotechnology and winner of the 2012 Distinguished Teacher Award.
Accompanying this honor is the Jacobs Excellence in Education Award, which comes with a $10,000 prize and recognizes educational achievements that exemplify a commitment to students and innovative teaching initiatives at the national level.
Despite these accolades, Dr. Vulfson’s dedication to pupils is exemplified by his humble, understated attitude towards winning. “Naturally, I’m very pleased,” he said.
The recommendation letters that secured Vulfson the honors were much more effusive.
“I respect and adore professor Vulfson for his knowledge on the subject, his commitment towards teaching and his care for his students,” wrote student Guruprasath S. Durairajan.
Classmate Ramya Kolli illuminated another aspect of Dr. Vulfson’s pedagogy: the emphasis on innovation. “I still remember the feel of accomplishment when I completed the biosensor assignment,” she wrote. “I am actually able to design a biosensor and come up with the innovation. His were the most interactive of all the classes I attended at Poly.”
“To me, personally, it’s philosophy,” responds Dr. Vulfson. “It’s something I very much enjoy doing: translating science into new treatments, new products, into the practical.”
Dr. Vulfson graduated from Moscow State University in Russia, where he earned his Ph.D. in bioorganic chemistry in 1985. After several postdoctoral positions and starting his own biotech company, he became a Head of Enzyme Technology Section and tenured professor at the Institute of Food Research in the United Kingdom in 1990.
Ten years and seventy peer-reviewed publications later, Dr. Vulfson moved to the United States to become a VP for Research and Development at Avatar Biotechnologies, a New Jersey-based start-up working on engineering of therapeutic proteins. Dr. Vulfson’s industrial experience also includes senior positions at Novelos Therapeutics, a pharmaceutical company developing new cancer treatments, and Akzo-Nobel — at the time a holding company for a number of pharmaceutical, health care and chemical businesses.
He credits his many areas of interest to his decades of diverse public and private sector experience ranging from research on biocatalysis and novel biomaterials to the development of protein therapeutics and anti-cancer drugs. “At some point you actually appreciate how much you’ve learned on the way,” says Dr. Vulfson. “In every case to develop a new product, you’ve got to somehow combine cutting-edge biological science with market realities or, in the case of biomedical science, with the medical need for new treatment.”
Dr. Vulfson has successfully applied all this experience and expertise towards developing two new master’s degree programs in biotechnology and biotechnology and entrepreneurship. The latter curriculum was created in cooperation with the Department of Technology Management and is credited with being the first to embody the NYU-Poly i2e philosophy — invention, innovation and entrepreneurship. The programs welcomed their first students in 2007, and almost 300 students have received the degree to date.
The core classes of these two biotech programs overlap, allowing students the freedom to choose whether to focus on the science itself or to learn corresponding business skills. Dr. Vulfson also believes that the “tremendous spectrum” of disciplines found at NYU-Poly is instrumental in fostering a collaborative environment that helps students and faculty alike.
“I find what’s going on here is amazing. You can find an answer to any question. Sometimes students bring something up and I don’t know the answer, but there’s a whole department with real experts who can help you out,” Dr. Vulfson states enthusiastically. “I think it’s very unique.”
Beyond crediting the support of other professors, staff members and administrators at NYU-Poly with helping him win the award, Dr. Vulfson’s commitment to students remains unwavering. In fact, the recognition he’s received makes him even more determined to work hard and ensure that NYU-Poly graduates succeed after earning their degrees.
“You have to run faster and faster not to get behind,” he said.
If the experience, innovation and dedication shown by Dr. Vulfson in winning the 2012 Distinguished Teacher Award is any indication, students can look forward to keeping his breakneck pace for a long time to come.