The Petit Institute at 20

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The story of the Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Bioscience always has been more about flesh and blood than bricks and mortar. That theme rang clear when the institute hosted a 20th anniversary gala Tuesday night, Oct. 27. But there was another theme as well: No one could have predicted the chain reaction that resulted from the human chemistry of 20 years ago, when a group of engineers and scientists came together to form a unique research institute. Along the way, they also started a movement.

“The secret to our success is, it started as a grassroots effort – we liked each other and wanted to interact. It wasn’t imposed upon us by some academic structure,” Sheldon May told a packed Suddath Room and an overflow crowd in the Petit Institute atrium, Tuesday when the institute hosted a 20th anniversary celebration. 

“There are so many other things on the Georgia Tech campus now that have to do with interactions among scientists and engineers, but I think we broke a lot of barriers,” May continued. “Sometimes there is a moment in time and you don’t realize what the implications of that moment are.”

Tuesday’s event drew 300 guests, including Petit Institute founding members, like May; Georgia Tech administrators, like President Bud Peterson and President Emeritus Wayne Clough, Executive Vice President of Research Steve Cross, as well as Deans Gary May (College of Engineering) and Paul Goldbart (College of Sciences); institute faculty members, staff, spouses and children, members of the institute’s Executive Advisory Board, and the man whose generosity has been the catalyst for growth and success, Parker H. “Pete” Petit.

They came to celebrate 20 years of interdisciplinary research, to recognize the founders, the leaders and teams, but also to eat and socialize, scientists and engineers like in the old days, but this time catered and with a live band. There were designated speakers: Petit Institute Executive Director Bob Guldberg, Peterson, Petit, founding director Bob Nerem, May and Loren Williams.

The gala was a fitting exclamation point for the Petit Institute on Tuesday, which began with the annual meeting of the advisory board in the Engineered Biosystems Building (EBB).

By 4:30 p.m., as members of the board were finishing their tours of new labs in the EBB, guests started arriving at the Petit Institute, and soon after, the presentations began with opening statements from Guldberg, who started by pointing out some of the essential current numbers: 172 faculty members, 17 research centers, more than $58 million in research funding last year.

“We can go on and on about the numbers, but clearly more important than the numbers are the people that make up this collaborative community,” said Guldberg, who introduced Peterson.

The Georgia Tech president applauded the work of his predecessors, Pat Crecine and Clough, “who had so much to do with the creation and success of the Petit Institute.” He recognized Don Giddens, who led the initial task force that resulted in creation of the interdisciplinary bioresearch institute, and founding director Nerem.

The word “team” kept coming up throughout the evening, but if there was a star of the celebration, it was probably Nerem, who got a bighearted introduction from Petit.

“Unselfish leadership makes wonderful things happen,” said Petit, alluding to Nerem. “Bob Nerem’s unselfish leadership brought us to where we are and I don’t think any of us could have envisioned what has played out here.”

Nerem lavished praise on fellow Petit Institute founders and early faculty members, leaders and supporters, like Giddens, May, Guldberg, Jim Powers, Bud Suddath, Bill Todd, Ray Vito, Roger Wartell, Loren Williams and Ajit Yoganathan, most of whom were in the audience. 

“It does take a team,” Nerem said later in the evening. “Ultimately, people in leadership positions have to serve the goals of the organization, but also the people in the organization. The bottom line is, and you’ve heard me say this before, that just like life in general, research is a people business.”

Nerem also recognized the contributions of the presidents, the philanthropists, the foundations, and the unique, integral partnership with Emory University.

And then Nerem, a pioneering bioengineer, closed with a quote from a pioneering rocket scientist, which seemed like a fitting example of cross-disciplinary appreciation, and earned him the only standing ovation of the evening.

“I think, in a way, it tells the story of what we’re all about in this building,” he said, then quoted, “ ‘It is difficult to say what is impossible, for the dream of yesterday is the hope of today and the reality of tomorrow.’”

Petit Institute 20th Anniversary Video


Petit Institute History


Jerry Grillo
Communications Officer II
Parker H. Petit Institute for
Bioengineering and Bioscience


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