Most people wind down after a hectic week by watching some television or reading a book. Associate Professor of the Practice of Biology Dr. Joe Burdo, on the other hand, heads to the racetracks. “There’s nothing that will clear away the clutter in your mind as much as doing 150 mph on a straightaway and navigating turns inches from the ground,” he said.
Dr. Burdo seeks adventure not just on the racetracks, but also in his career: he has recently left his position at Boston College to develop an educational startup company, NeuroTinker, that he cofounded with lead engineer Zach Fredin (www.NeuroTinker.com). Burdo is applying his passion for science education through new technology called NeuroBytes (hardware neuron simulators) that combines both hands-on and virtual learning. “Neurobytes are a really fun way to learn about neuroscience and physiology while physically building your own neural circuits,” he elaborated. Using a small business grant from the National Science Foundation, he and Fredin hope to develop this technology and prove its usefulness, in order to “add something valuable to the educational hardware world.”
His pursuit of personal and professional fulfillment at this stage of his career is an inspiration to students like Nicole Miller MCAS ‘10 and Jared Miller MCAS ‘11. To the Millers, Burdo filled many positive roles including those of “a professor, a mentor, a lab-director, a co-author, the officiant at [their] wedding, and most importantly a very close friend,” said Nicole. Nicole cites Burdo’s involvement in her and Jared’s lives as “life changing”, noting the invaluable knowledge that they gained in his laboratory and academic courses, his guidance in their careers and education, and his friendship.
The Millers are just two of a very long list of previous and current students whose BC experiences Burdo has positively transformed. When asked over email to provide a few words about Burdo for this feature, Hannah O’Day MCAS ‘15 instead replied with more than a page of praises. “Dr. Burdo was by far the best professor I had at BC,” O’Day said. As an undergraduate student and aspiring engineer at a school where no engineering courses exist, O’Day found in Burdo “someone who not only believed in [her] dream, but also took the time to make sure it became a reality.”
O’Day notes that students came to Burdo’s office hours not just to discuss test scores or topics in his courses, but also to seek advice or comfort through “real student-professor relationships.” Perhaps this is because Burdo always talks to students as equals, not inferiors, and has what O’Day describes as unparalleled patience and wisdom.
What makes Burdo so special as an educator is not only his personality and valuable mentorship, but also his passion for research and his unique teaching style. As one of the only neuroscientists in the biology faculty, Burdo’s research investigates the mechanisms by which neuroprotective molecules in foods protect neurons from damage caused by oxidative stress and free radicals. “A diet rich in fruits and vegetables could save thousands upon thousands of lives every year,” he notes, “and billions of dollars in healthcare and missed work costs.” Burdo shares his passion for research by mentoring research assistants in his lab like the Millers and O’Day, and teaching them how to practice investigative thinking. He also tries to make his research and courses understandable even to nonscientists, stressing the importance of “everyone to have at least a basic grasp on how the natural world works, and how science is an amazing process that can uncover its deepest secrets.” This passion for scientific dialogue and for teaching science in a way that is understandable for anyone made Burdo an exceptional faculty advisor for the Life Science Journal of Boston College.
His teaching style is unlike that of most other professors. Having taken his Introduction to Physiology class, I have firsthand seen how Burdo incorporates new technology to engage students and promote effective learning. I would walk into his office hours with questions from class, and instead of telling me the answer directly he would reply with more questions to challenge and guide my thinking until I came up with the answer myself. Indeed, one of the things Burdo says he’ll miss most about BC is watching “those ‘lightbulb moments’” in students and “seeing how much fun it can be for them to learn something amazing about physiology or neuroscience that they didn’t know before.”
Burdo has played a pivotal role in the lives and careers of many Boston College students. O’Day sums up all of our experiences, “I am infinitely grateful to Joe for all that he has done, and I can definitely say that I would not be where I am without him.” While he will be sorely missed at BC, his students are excited to see a project he has worked so hard on, NeuroTinker, become a success. Asked if there was any advice he would like to give BC students, he replied, “Take as many classes as you can in subjects that don’t fall neatly into the preconceived plans for your life,” adding, “ you never know where inspiration and joy will come from.”