(NOTE: William Heetderks bio and photo from NIBIB web site)
As a child, William Heetderks was fascinated with gadgets, especially radios. He says, “In those days, they had these little crystal radios. They had an antenna and a little diode that could take enough power out of the air to drive your earphone without a battery. It really amazed me that there was this energy all around us that you could actually hear if you had the proper instrumentation.”
Growing up in a time when children’s lives were much less structured than today, instead of spending all his time on the soccer field or processing ever-growing mounds of homework, Heetderks was very content to spend much of his free time tinkering in the basement of his parents’ home. His father, who was an accountant by trade, frequently reminded his family how much he regretted not choosing a profession in the field of engineering. It’s obvious those lamentations had a strong impact on the family when Heetderks reports that his strongest role models during his formative years were two older brothers who became engineers.
True to the family plan, Heetderks steered toward an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering in a program that was almost devoid of biological studies. He recalls, “I hadn’t taken biology since tenth grade, but during my senior year at college, I took a course in bioelectricity that looked at electricity of the nervous system.” That single course pushed Heetderks out of the engineering nest and into the bigger multidisciplinary world, stirring an unforeseen new interest that motivated his application to graduate school in bioengineering.
One of the pioneers in what was then a newborn field, Heetderks received a Ph.D. in bioengineering in 1976 from the University of Michgan and stayed one additional year for postdoctoral research in microfabrication of solid state devices for biological sensing. In 1977, Cornell University came knocking with an offer of an electrical engineering faculty position, but the tenure track wasn’t as appealing as he had anticipated. Heetderks explains, “As time passed, I felt I was doing more and more engineering, and less and less biology. I was very much interested in digital signal processing and microfabrication of devices, so I went to medical school to get more immersed in biology.”
In the late 1970s, it was difficult to find educational programs that crossed interdisciplinary lines. Heetderks provides perspective, “People criticize the stovepipe educational systems of today, but things are now radically better than in the 1970s. There was interdisciplinary work going on back then, but it took so much effort and patience. It was difficult to find physicians who thought of engineers as true collaborators; engineers were just people who solved problems for doctors. That perspective is fading, and there is a much more cooperative spirit now, but the golden key in today’s interdisciplinary research is communication. Engineers need to learn the language of medicine, and medical professionals need to know the engineering language so they can communicate effectively about technical issues of their projects.”
Heetderks came to NIH in 1986, initially serving as Program Director of the Repair and Plasticity Cluster at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. In 2002, he accepted the position of Director of Extramural Programs at NIBIB where it is now his responsibility to make sure that about 80 percent of NIBIB funds are channeled outward to support research. He comments, “We have a very heavy emphasis on investigator-initiated research, but we also want to fund Bridging the Sciences initiatives and certain new kinds of imaging and bioengineering areas, such as point of care and tissue engineering technology. We are very plugged in to the broader scientific community, so we have a strong sense of where there are needs and opportunity.”
Heetderks sums up his philosophy of research and vision for health care saying, “The key thing to realize is that when it comes to chemistry, biology, physics, math, or engineering, there are no lines; they all interface seamlessly. I truly believe that this philosophy of the nature of matter and the life that springs from it will be the foundation for the next explosion of interventions that heal and cure. The public trust is well founded in NIBIB because our map points the way across an interdisciplinary bridge that will take us to amazing new clinical applications and implementation.”