An Age of Empowerment: Pamela Bhatti
By Victor Rogers May 21, 2019
This is the ninth installment of a yearlong series about women at Georgia Tech. See the full series.
Pamela Bhatti moves with ease between medicine and engineering. Her lab conducts research in biomedical sensors and subsystems, with a focus on cochlear and vestibular neural prosthesis (improving balance and reducing dizziness), and the improvement of coronary artery imaging. This particular type of research isn’t what springs to mind when she says she’s an electrical and computer engineer.
“When you hear about medicine and engineering, you think biomedical engineering, not electrical and computer engineering,” Bhatti said. “I have always liked medicine, and I liked making things.”
Pamela Bhatti is pictured in the Pettit Microelectronics Research Center. Photo by Allison Carter.
Her love of medicine and engineering led her to earn a bachelor’s degree in bioengineering from the University of California, Berkeley, a master’s in electrical engineering from the University of Washington, and a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. She also has a master’s degree in clinical research from Emory University.
“I took classes with medical doctors, and I was envious because they got to be the doctors. Then I looked at how structured their world is, and I liked our world better,” she said.
“The reason why I’m in electrical and computer engineering is because there are some real fundamental pieces that I just enjoy, and they fall in the electrical and computer engineering space. I could probably see myself in a few different departments, but what I like to teach is here,” Bhatti said. “Electrical and computer engineering is extremely broad, but on the surface you wouldn’t guess that. This is a platform for many choices.”
Bhatti knows the platform well. She grew up in Silicon Valley with a father who was an electrical engineer working in semiconductor physics and a mother who was a chemist. Both played a role in supporting her curiosity about science. She also worked at Motorola in semiconductors before getting her Ph.D. In 2007, she joined the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering where she is an associate professor. Since February, she also has been the associate chair for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.
“I think all professors are innovative, and all professors are entrepreneurial to keep our research programs moving,” Bhatti said. “But, more specifically, in our unit, we have quite a few faculty members who are interested in external interactions with industry and corporate partners, and in commercializing and licensing our creations and technology. We have entities at Georgia Tech to help us with this, but there are some noticeable gaps.”
That’s where her role as the associate chair for Innovation and Entrepreneurship — leading the School’s support of faculty members’ entrepreneurial activities — comes into play.
“I have experienced some elements of what it’s like for a professor to think about commercializing technology,” she said. “We’re good at understanding how to take something into the scholarly domain. But taking something in a commercial direction is different from writing it in a paper. It’s a different contribution.”
In many settings, the doctors are comparing a prior X-ray to a current X-ray. There are times when an X-ray is aligned with the wrong person. If there’s a photo on it, there’s no question about it being the right person’s X-ray.
“Sometimes, the clinicians lose out on patient interaction. Some clinicians want to see the patient’s face because there’s more to the patient than the X-ray image,” she said.
Bhatti likes the idea of making a positive change.
“The idea of impact — if something can impact patient care more rapidly by taking it through a translational process, I get excited about that,” she said. “The initial pull for me wasn’t to start a company and sell a product.”
She also enjoys the impact her role can have on students.
“I really try to teach more than just the curriculum. In this day and age, I’m not the gatekeeper to content. Students can learn anything, anytime, anywhere. But the feedback we all need is something you get by being in a class,” she said. “I try to train students to know how to interact in industry.
“I really do like when I teach someone something that they didn’t know. Part of the reason I came back into academics and didn’t stay in industry is because I think academics is very empowering,” she said. “People can do a lot with knowledge. That’s the most fun — when you have a class that’s really engaged and you feel fulfilled by it. I think, ‘Yeah, I picked the right thing.’”