Newark College of Engineering Names Surgeon Robert Gorman, Class of 1984, an Outstanding Alumnus

NCE's 2010 Outstanding Alumnus Robert Gorman '84

Robert Gorman comes from a family of humble economic needs. His father was a salesman and his mother was a housewife and a book-keeper. Neither of them went to college. Both of them, though, emphasized education. And when it was time for him to attend college, they advised him to study a field that would assure him a good job.

So he came to NCE and majored in chemical engineering, intending to work as a chemical engineer. But in the fall of his junior year, he saw a brochure on a bulletin board for an M.D./Ph.D program. The brochure described how engineering techniques were being used by doctors to help patients. Robert was so impressed by the brochure, he decided he would apply to medical school. So after he graduated from NJIT in 1984, he enrolled in UMDNJ’s Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.  He later did his medical internship and his residency in surgery at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania/Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.      

Today, he is an associate professor of cardiovascular surgery at the University of Pennsylvania. And, along with his twin brother, Joseph Gorman, who also graduated from NJIT in 1984, he co-directs the Gorman Cardiovascular Research Group. To honor his achievements, the Newark College of Engineering recently named him Outstanding Alumnus.

In this interview, Gorman talks about the benefits of studying engineering at NJIT, and how it prepared him to work as a prominent physician and lab director.

You studied chemical engineering at NJIT. Did that major prepare you well for medical school? And does being a chemical engineer help you in your work as surgeon and a lab director?
We have 10 cardiac surgeons in our department and four are chemical engineers. I also know of two other cardiac surgeons in Philadelphia who are chemical engineers. When reduced to the basic elements, both disciplines have a lot in common: pumps (hearts), valves, pipes (arteries), etc. Most of my time now is spent in the laboratory developing medical devices. I draw on my engineering background every day.

What advice do you have for NJIT students who want to go to medical school and work as doctors or surgeons?

There are a lot easier paths to medical school and surgical residency than through an engineering degree. The upside is that after surviving an engineering course of study, medical school will be a breeze.

You graduated with honors from NJIT.  Looking back, do you think you got sound education at NJIT?

Yes, I often think about the quality of the education I received at NJIT, especially when I come in contact with engineers who were educated at other institutions. All the courses I remember taking at NJIT were demanding but at the same time they were practical and oriented to “real-world” problems and situations. When I finished, I really felt that I had been trained to be a “problem solver.” I think that is really the best definition of an engineer: a problem solver.  I find that sometimes these qualities are lacking in students who are educated at other institutions

Why did you select NJIT for your undergraduate studies?  Also, when and how did you first take an interest in engineering?

I come from a relatively humble background. Two of my grandparents were immigrants from Italy who spoke no English. Neither of my parents went to college. The importance of education was always emphasized by my parents; however, acquiring a skill that would ensure employment was considered to be absolutely essential. My parents realized that an engineering degree met that requirement, so they encouraged me to study engineering. My father worked with several men who had attended NCE. These people had done well and he respected them. I think this is why he encouraged me to apply to NJIT. (The fact that tuition was about $500 semester didn’t hurt either.)

d you decide to go to med school in college, or earlier?
I know exactly when I decided to go to medical school. In the autumn of my junior year, I saw a brochure on the chemical engineering bulletin board for an M.D. / Ph.D program at Johns Hopkins in bioengineering. The topics that were included in that pamphlet seemed so interesting, challenging and intriguing. Until that moment, I had never considered that there was a place for engineering applications in medicine. I still have that brochure.

You and your brother are identical twins and came to NJIT together. Now you work together. Does it help you to have always had your brother to study and now work with?

No matter what you do in life it is good to work with people you can absolutely trust. It’s a real bonus to have someone around who you are comfortable asking a stupid question. I think that helps creativity – sometimes stupid questions aren’t so stupid.

What town did you grow up in and what high school did you attend? What were you like in high school? What did your parents do? And did they encourage you to study medicine? Did they respect doctors?

I grew up in Fairfield, N.J., and attended West Essex High School.  My parents encouraged us to study engineering, as I mentioned above.  And when I decided to go to medical school they thought it was great, but I don’t think they ever had considered it as an option. My mother was a secretary and a clerk. My father was a sales representative. I think everybody respects a good physician.  I do.

Do you stay in touch with any of your classmates from NJIT?

No, it’s been a long time.

Are you honored that NCE is naming you an Outstanding Alumnus? 

Sure, it’s a tough world. Pats on the back are few and far between. It’s always nice to be recognized.

Along with your work as a surgeon, you direct a lab that designs devices for patients with valve problems.  I imagine your engineering background is especially helpful in directing the lab.

As I mentioned above, it’s absolutely essential; our success, my brother’s and mine -- is due to our unique background (engineering, medicine, surgery).

Many NJIT students want to be biomedical engineers. Is the work that biomedical engineers do helpful to you as a surgeon? How important is technology developments and new devices in your field of surgery and medicine?

All of medicine, but especially cardiovascular medicine, is becoming increasingly dependent on technology and devices. There has never been a better time to be an engineer who is interested in medical applications. The future is bright for creative, well trained bioengineers, especially if they have entrepreneurial inclinations.

What do you do for pleasure outside of work?

I like to run, read and snowboard. I like to travel with my wife and three kids. My wife, Marisa, and I spend a lot of time with our three children: Robert, 15, Olivia 13, and Matthew, 11. All three are very involved in sports and are great students. It’s a big effort helping them to be all that they can be.

(by Robert Florida, University Web Services)