Alumni Making an Impact: Jeffrey Michael Karp

Headshot of Jeffrey Michael Karp

Jeffrey Michael Karp (ChemE PhD 0T4) completed his Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering with a collaborative specialization in Biomedical Engineering at the University of Toronto in 2004. He is currently a professor at Harvard University, and holds appointments at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and MIT. Dr. Karp’s path to success was far from easy: diagnosed with learning differences and ADHD in his youth, navigating his academic career required perseverance, self-awareness, and creative ways of channeling his differences to his advantage. His professional career has been distinguished by his contributions to the development of new and innovative biomedical technologies and materials, and his mentorship and support has propelled his trainees to successful positions at prestigious research and education institutions around the world. Dr. Karp is a true inspiration and reminder to anyone struggling with their own learning obstacles that there is no single path to achievement. He outlines his amazing life story and offers insights into how we can look to nature to spark ideas and ignite action in his book LIT: Life Ignition Tools, which he launched at the U of T Bookstore in May.


Can you tell us about your role and company? Feel free to talk about big projects you have worked on, career milestones and achievements, etc. 

I am a Professor of Anesthesiology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and I also hold appointments at Harvard Medical School and MIT. My research focuses on the process of accelerated medical problem-solving, and many of our inventions are inspired by nature. Some of the major projects we’ve worked on include developing a tissue glue that can seal holes in a beating heart, targeted therapies for conditions like osteoarthritis and Crohn’s disease, “smart needles” that automatically stop when they reach their target, and a nasal spray to neutralize pathogens. My lab’s technologies have led to the formation of thirteen companies, and I hold over 100 patents.

However, my greatest achievement is the people I have trained and mentored. Over 30 of my trainees have gone on to secure faculty positions at prestigious institutions, contributing to the advancement of biomedical engineering and medical innovation. Seeing their success and the impact they are making in their respective fields is incredibly rewarding and highlights the importance of mentorship in my career.

The opportunity to share knowledge, inspire curiosity, and foster a love for scientific discovery is incredibly fulfilling. Seeing students not only experiment in their research but in their approach to research and witnessing their academic growth and development of scientific confidence brings me immense satisfaction. And, the energy and enthusiasm that students bring to the lab are contagious – this not only enhances their learning experience but also invigorates and inspires me as a researcher

What motivated you to pursue a career in your current field/industry, and how has your experience been working in this field/industry so far?

My motivation to pursue a career in biomedical engineering stemmed from my childhood experiences with learning differences and ADHD. These challenges drove me to develop unique problem-solving skills and a deep curiosity about how things work. I enjoyed studying chemical engineering and appreciated the rigorous training it provided – as I advanced I found myself gravitating towards using chemical engineering principles towards medical applications. The idea of applying engineering principles to solve medical problems and improve patient care was incredibly compelling to me.

I see a degree in engineering as a degree in problem-solving. My experiences with ADHD taught me to approach challenges creatively, and my enjoyment of physics in high school, which was both challenging and rewarding, further solidified my interest in tackling complex problems. This background made engineering a natural fit for me, allowing me to apply these problem-solving skills in innovative ways.

I am passionately curious about everything, and biomedical engineering offers a dynamic field where I can constantly explore new areas and learn from a multidisciplinary team. This field allows me to delve into various aspects of science and technology, from developing medical devices to creating novel drug delivery systems, all while collaborating with experts from different disciplines.

Working in this field has been incredibly rewarding, allowing me to innovate and develop technologies that directly impact patient care. The journey has been filled with both challenges and triumphs, and it’s been a privilege to mentor the next generation of bioengineers and see the practical applications of our work improve lives. My experience in this industry has reinforced my passion for combining engineering and medicine to create meaningful advancements in healthcare.

What skills or qualifications do you believe are crucial for success as a chemical engineer in your industry, and how did your education at ChemE contribute to your development in these areas?

Critical skills for success as a chemical engineer in the biomedical field include strong problem-solving abilities, creativity, interdisciplinary collaboration, and a deep understanding of both engineering principles and biological systems. Equally important is the ability to connect with people and form multi-dimensional relationships that encompass both friendship and professional collaboration. Building these connections allows for productive work and continuous learning from others.

My education at McGill University and the University of Toronto provided a solid foundation in chemical engineering principles and practical research skills. The rigorous training and emphasis on innovation helped me develop the ability to tackle complex medical problems and translate research findings into real-world applications. Additionally, my academic experience fostered a collaborative spirit and the importance of building relationships with peers, mentors, and colleagues, which has been invaluable in my career.

Furthermore, a commitment to self-evolution and continuous learning has been crucial. Engaging with diverse individuals has enriched my perspective and enhanced my problem-solving skills. Maintaining vulnerability and managing ego are also essential. Being open about challenges and willing to learn from failures fosters an environment of trust and continuous improvement. Learning from others and being open to new ideas and approaches have allowed me to grow both personally and professionally, ensuring that I remain adaptable and forward-thinking in a rapidly evolving field.

Can you share some insights into the industry or field your company operates in and the opportunities it offers to potential candidates?

The biomedical engineering field is dynamic and rapidly evolving, offering numerous opportunities for innovation and impact. Our work at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the associated companies spans various areas, including regenerative medicine, drug delivery systems, medical devices, and immunotherapy. Potential candidates have the opportunity to work on cutting-edge technologies that address critical healthcare needs. The field values creativity, interdisciplinary collaboration, and a passion for improving patient outcomes.

How do you stay connected with the ChemE community as an alum, and are there any opportunities for current students or recent graduates to engage with your company?

I stay connected with the ChemE community through mentorship, collaboration on research projects, and participation in academic and professional events. I frequently give lectures and talks at universities, including my alma mater, and engage in collaborative research with colleagues in the field. We offer numerous opportunities for students and recent graduates to engage with our work through internships, fellowships, and research positions in our lab and associated companies. These roles provide hands-on experience in innovative biomedical engineering projects and the chance to contribute to transformative healthcare solutions.

What advice would you give to current students or recent graduates who are starting their careers?

My advice to current students and recent graduates is to stay curious, find ways to build resilience, and embrace interdisciplinary learning. Be open to experimenting to discover what activities resonate with you and which ones do not, and find what truly excites you. Pay attention to the cues you get from your mind, your body, and your interactions with others. These cues can provide valuable insights into your true passions and strengths.

Try to see everything as an opportunity to learn and gain insights that can help you make better decisions in the future. Viewing your life as a living laboratory is key. Keep experimenting and adapting, understanding that each experience, whether it results in success or failure, offers valuable lessons. This mindset will enable you to continuously evolve and innovate.

Recognize that you can always learn something from everyone you meet. Consider that everyone you interact with is the most important person in their life, and approach interactions with respect and openness. See everything as a skill that can be improved—your ability to ask questions, be creative, and express humility in your thoughts and actions.

It’s important to understand that people generally repeat what they experience or learn in the environments they have been exposed to. For example, the way we present research, write papers, or even our approach to problem-solving are often influenced by previous environments we have been exposed to. Developing awareness around the processes that work or don’t work for you is crucial. By doing so, you can identify and cultivate effective strategies while discarding those that hinder your progress.

Seek out mentors and build a strong network of peers and professionals. Don’t be afraid to take risks and pursue innovative ideas, even if they seem unconventional. Focus on continuous learning and personal growth, and always keep the broader impact of your work in mind. The journey may be challenging, but it is incredibly rewarding to contribute to advancements that can significantly improve people’s lives.