Donor Story

Because They Believe

Couple Funds Engineering Fellowships, Endows Professorship

Michelle G. McRuiz

whittenHip replacements. Artificial hearts. Time-release medications. These terms are familiar to most Americans thanks to remarkable advances made in the field of biomedical engineering. David Whitten and Jo Wright Whitten believe that, in time, UNM could offer a top biomedical engineering program, and they have backed up their convictions with two major gifts to the School of Engineering (SOE).

The first, a current gift, will provide fellowship support to primarily first-year SOE graduate students pursuing degrees in biomedical engineering. (Biomedical engineering applies the principles of engineering technology and design to biology and medicine.) The second, a planned gift, will create an endowed professorship in the Center for Biomedical Engineering (CBME).

The SOE established the CBME in 2005 with the goal of improving the health of New Mexicans and stimulating the state’s economy. The CBME also conducts hands-on outreach activities in New Mexico schools to teach youth more about this exciting field and to spark their interest in biomedical engineering as a career.

Gifts that Go Far

When their daughter earned her Ph.D. last year, the Whittens felt “freed” financially to give back to an educational institution that had helped them. They chose UNM over one or more of their alma maters because, according to Jo, “The money could go farther in New Mexico, and we like the diversity here.” The graduate stipends will provide welcome support to first-year students busy with studies and doctoral research products, thereby making the department more attractive to prospective applicants.

The endowed professorship requires strong academic credentials, a history of distinguished teaching and research, dedication to mentoring students and faculty, and a strong desire for collaborative work. It’s these rigorous standards that will attract more top-notch professors to the SOE and help push UNM forward in the pack of engineering schools.

“Endowed chairs are very important for attracting and retaining top professors,” said David. “When I started at [the University of North Carolina at] Chapel Hill… we got some very generous gifts and went from being a middle-of-the-pack chemistry department to one that is [now] in the top five or 10.”

“Dave and Jo Whitten’s generous gifts of current graduate fellowships and an estate-funded professorship for our biomedical engineering program will help the SOE attract and retain the brightest, most diverse students in the near term, with a long-term ability to add faculty to this growing program,” said SOE Dean Catalin Roman. “The Whittens’ decision to support UNM rather than their own alma maters is a true compliment to the School.”

Improving Human Health

David has been the CBME’s interim director since 2009 (he will step down this winter). “The Center is changing rapidly,” he said. “Originally it was a research center only. We have developed a graduate program, so we’re really seeing that get going.”

The CBME’s work has the potential to make significant changes in human life, which is very rewarding to David. “Everyone working at the Center believes in what they’re doing,” he said, “trying to do things that help people. For example, some people in the Center are developing artificial implantable devices. Other people are working on early detection of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. It’s the most exciting research I’ve ever been involved in.”

And he has been involved in a lot. He earned his A.B., M.A., and Ph.D. degrees at Johns Hopkins University, did research at the Caltech Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the mid-1960s, completed a postdoctoral stay at Caltech’s chemistry department, then joined the chemistry faculty at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In 1983 he joined the University of Rochester’s chemistry faculty. He has been on staff at Los Alamos National Laboratory and on faculty at Arizona State University. He co-founded QTL Biosystems, a developer of biosensing and bioassay technology located in Santa Fe. In addition to his directorship of the CBME, he is editor-in-chief of Langmuir, a prestigious publication of the American Chemical Society (ACS). David was made a Fellow of the ACS in July 2010 for his contributions to the chemical sciences and his service to the ACS.

Jo is also on the staff of Langmuir as coordinating editor. She received her undergraduate degree at Towson University, taught in the public schools in Baltimore County, then earned a master’s of education from Johns Hopkins. When she and David moved to Chapel Hill, she studied art intensely, including silkscreen printmaking and incorporating her photographs onto silkscreen prints. Her works are in a number of public collections. In addition, she taught video production at the University of Rochester.

Both Jo and David are glad to be engaged in work they believe in. “We feel very lucky we’ve been able to work, and we don’t have plans to stop working,” said Jo. “It’s good to be working for something.”

David added that they thought long and hard about which institution they would support. “We have had wonderful educational experiences,” he said. But, he concluded, “You get more bang for your buck at UNM.”