Florida Atlantic University's first student-run news source.


Florida Atlantic University's first student-run news source.


Florida Atlantic University's first student-run news source.


Saving Lives & Degrees

In 1995, David Brunell was an FAU student who expected to earn his master’s degree in electrical engineering within a few years. In 1996, he was a leukemia patient who expected to die in no more than five years.

Brunell was only 33, but his condition was so bad that doctors told him he needed a bone marrow transplant if he wanted to see 40. He started chemotherapy, but, he says, “After a while I could see that the medicine had stopped working. I didn’t think I could make it.”

Over the next several years, Brunell struggled with fatigue and depression. He even had to stop his master’s classes at FAU. “It took all my energy just to get to work in the morning so I could keep my medical insurance.”

Then in 2001, a miracle drug called Gleevec was approved by the FDA. And after six months of taking the tiny orange pill created by researchers in Switzerland, all signs of Brunell’s disease were gone.

“The only way I lived was because these scientists made a cure for my leukemia,” he says.

It was then that Brunell decided on a career change.

“I was amazed by the power of molecular biology,” he says. “I had made some pretty cool stuff in engineering, but that didn’t compare to saving lives.”

Brunell went back to school at FAU, this time to study biochemistry. Brunell, who celebrated his 46th birthday in December, is now working on his Ph.D. He spends about 40 hours a week in a lab on the Boca campus researching anti-aging compounds.

Brunell owes his life to researchers, but every student at FAU stands to benefit as the school’s reputation as a research university grows. And it’s growing. Professors here are not only discovering cures for cancer, but they’re finding ways to power entire cities with energy from the ocean, creating cameras that see better than the human eye and engineering flexible armor for troops that’s as thin as a T-shirt.

Last year, FAU received almost $60 million for research – money it used to pay for more than 150 projects in everything from marine biology to engineering technology.

While FAU still has a way to go before it joins the research university elites like University of Florida, which gets more than $500 million a year for research (see chart on page 3), it has already gained national attention for some of its work in biomedical science and ocean engineering. A few months ago FAU beat a handful of other Florida schools to win a $5 million grant to study ways to create power from the ocean’s currents.

“We’re getting more and more known for our research,” says Howard Hanson, associate vice president of research at FAU.

And according to FAU President Frank Brogan, that’s the idea. “We are working towards becoming a top research university. Once you reach $100 million in research funding, people start to respect you. That’s what we have to achieve next.”

So why should people from the fine arts or history department care about FAU getting more research dollars?

“It’s a little bit like winning the national championship in football,” Brogan explains. “It gives the school notoriety and helps elevate everything that the university does.”

High profile research attracts more money and better teachers. That improves the quality of the academic programs, and better programs attract better students. More money also translates into more graduate stipends and scholarships.

All this makes FAU degrees more valuable, no matter the major. “Twenty years ago, people didn’t even know FAU was a university,” says Hanson, associate vice president of research. “Now we have people coming from the other side of the ocean to be a part of our ocean engineering program. That’s the power of a research reputation.”

And Brogan assures that FAU will continue to flex its research muscles now that it’s become one of the university’s priorities.

“There are so many challenges facing the world today in environment, health, power and energy,” Hanson says. “We need a lot of smart people to make it happen. That’s why we are trying to get students interested in research early.”

Part of the allure of research for students is access to hands-on experience with the latest technology and techniques, says Larry Lemanski, vice president of research. Plus, students learn from teachers who are on the cutting-edge in their field and help them make discoveries that change lives or – in Brunell’s case – save them.

“Research is not just about saving lives and making people live longer,” he says. “It’s about making people live better.”

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