Gleason Turns Tragedy into a Passion for Global Health
Rudy Gleason’s singular focus on using bioengineering innovation to combat grand challenges in global health comes from a deeply personal place.
Gleason and his wife were in the process of adopting a young girl from Ethiopia in 2009 named Kennedy. Before they could bring her home, however, she died — the result, Gleason said, of a seemingly preventable combination of malnutrition and diarrhea.
That personal tragedy changed everything for Gleason, an associate professor in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering and the George W. Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering.
“This loss shifted my passion and redirected both my personal activities and my academic teaching, research, and service activities at Georgia Tech,” Gleason said.
As a result, he has mentored dozens of students on trips to sub-Saharan Africa. He has developed courses focused on global health challenges and bioengineering. He has built research collaborations with scientists and clinicians in developing countries. And he mentors teams of Capstone Design students who focus on projects to improve health and medicine in Ethiopia.
Now his work is being recognized with the Steven A. Denning Award for Global Engagement from the Office of the Vice Provost for International Initiatives at Tech. The award honors a faculty member who has demonstrated sustained outstanding achievement and commitment to the advancement of the Institute’s global engagement.
“Receiving the Denning Award is a tremendous honor,” Gleason said. “It is my hope that this award will provide a platform for me to continue to engage students, faculty, and international students and scholars in research, teaching, and service activities at the interface of bioengineering and global health to reduce disparities in health around the world.”
In Ethiopia, that work is focused on developing resource-appropriate biomedical devices to reduce maternal and child mortality. As Gleason has learned — and as his students learn, too — the challenges are not always about resources or technology; sometimes, the challenges are about culture and social norms. He has been supported in his efforts by a variety of funders, including the Fulbright Scholars Program, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and the U.S. Agency for International Development.
On campus, Gleason developed a course called Engineering for Global Health and Development to teach students how to use their skills to address economic and health disparities in the developing world.
He also helped create a special section of the Coulter BME Capstone Design course focused on creating solutions for the developing world. One of the projects from those design teams, a device to prevent neonatal hypothermia in Ethiopia, is the subject of pending grant applications to the NIH and the Gates Foundation.
Gleason’s passion for this work stretches beyond his professional life. He and his wife have started a nonprofit that focuses on women and family empowerment and child development in vulnerable families in Ethiopia. It’s called Because of Kennedy. They also continued to pursue adoption, and they have two daughters who are now 11 and 12 years old.
As Gleason sees it, though, the work is just beginning.
“In the years ahead, I hope to broaden collaborations between Georgia Tech students and faculty and international researchers in the developing world,” he said. “I hope to explore the development of research and teaching centers aimed at translating bioengineering innovation to the developing world and joint biomedical engineering institutes between Georgia Tech and universities in the developing world.”