Georgia Tech’s Bob Nerem invested as much in his students, friends and colleagues as he did in his profession. He was a national leader in the fields of bioscience and bioengineering.
Photo: Rob Felt
Photo: Rob Felt

Robert Nerem, field-leading Georgia Tech scientist, dies at 82

When Bob Nerem was 6 years old, he had a talk with his dad he never forgot.

“He came home from first grade and said some of the children have black skin,” said Marilyn Nerem, his wife of 41 years. “And his dad said, ‘Skin has two sides, one white and one black. Some people wear the black side out and some wear the white.’”

Bob Nerem, a first-generation American, went on to receive awards and accolades from around the world for pioneering work in regenerative medicine and bioengineering. But he never lost focus on the dignity and value of human beings, regardless of race or background, his family and colleagues said.

“He always believed in the incredible potential every single person has to promote good in the world,” said daughter Nancy Nerem Black, an architect in Charlottesville, Va. “It was more than the glass is half full. It’s that the glass is continually being refilled.”

Robert “Bob” Nerem, founding director of the Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Bioscience at Georgia Tech, died March 6 at Emory Hospital after a long illness. He was 82. A celebration of life will be held later at Park Springs Retirement Community in Stone Mountain.

Nerem found renewal through investing in people. Born to Norwegian parents in Evanston, Ill, in 1937, he developed a love for different cultures and ways of life through his travels to 49 countries. He became friends with waiters and desk clerks and those he met in the elevator. He was a mentor to countless graduate students and fellow researchers. He often spent his spare time helping friends with personal matters.

Starting with graduate studies at The Ohio State University, where he earned a doctorate in mechanical engineering, and throughout his 33 years at Georgia Tech, he crafted Bob Nerem’s 20 Rules of Life, a list of life lessons learned he freely shared with family members and students he advised. He was professor and Parker H. Petit Distinguished Chair for Engineering in Medicine at Georgia Tech. He also held a joint appointment in the Georgia Tech/Emory Biomedical Engineering Department and the School of Chemical Engineering. He was director of the Georgia Tech/Emory Center for the Engineering of Living Tissues.

Steve Nerem remembers his dad working long hours but always taking time to make others feel important. “He was that kind of guy. It didn’t matter what walk of life you were from, he wanted to know your story.” Following his father’s career in academics, Steve Nerem is professor of aerospace engineering science at University of Colorado Boulder. His personal favorite from the Rules of Life: “If you encounter a closed door, simply look for another door that might be open; life is filled with a lot of paths and doors to walk through, do not waste time on a door which is closed, let the rock in your path be a stepping stone.”

Nerem invested in people, instilling the confidence to achieve their goals. Clinton Smith was a high school student at the Title 1 Best Academy in Atlanta and the only African American in his science lab class when he was chosen to work with Nerem on groundbreaking stem cell research through Project ENGAGES (Engaging New Generations at Georgia Tech through Engineering and Science). Nerem began the program in 2013 to provide science and engineering opportunities and mentors for teens from minority populations.

“He was regal but he never acted like he was better than me,” said Smith, now a sophomore at Georgia Tech majoring in biomedical engineering. He remembers asking Nerem for a letter of recommendation when applying to colleges. Nerem told Smith he had written the letter a year before and had it waiting.

“For him to have that letter on the ready, to have written it for me when I wasn’t even a senior yet, well he had a lot of faith in me,” Smith said. “That program changed my life.” Smith wants to become a Project ENGAGES mentor himself, and hopes to become the first in his family to earn a doctorate degree.

Of all his achievements, Nerem was most proud of Project ENGAGES. “He’d get tears in his eyes. He’d say, ‘I have all these honors and awards, but I love helping these young people of diversity,’” said Marilyn Nerem.

After Nerem died, his wife found a new Rule of Life, scribbled in pen on a scrap of paper in his coat pocket. Rule No. 21: “Whatever you do, do something of service for someone else – then you’ll know it mattered that you were alive.”

In addition to his wife, son, and daughter, Nerem is survived by his former wife Jill Thomson Payne of Charlottesville, Va., step-daughters (whom he called bonus daughters) Christy Maser of Dublin, Ohio, and Carol Maser Wilcox of Hilliard, Ohio, and seven grandchildren.

Memorials may be made to Project ENGAGES, Georgia Tech Foundation, 760 Spring Street NW, Suite 400, Atlanta, GA, 30368.

Read and sign the online guestbook for Robert “Bob” Nerem

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