From stand-up comedy to cutting edge HIV research, Jonathan Su aims for sweet spot between teaching engineering skills paired with effective communication
Jonathan Su has many hopes for students of Elon University’s engineering program, but one of the highest is that they won’t have to moonlight as stand-up comics to learn public speaking.
He says this — only half-joking — from personal experience.
Yes, the assistant professor of engineering who has dedicated recent years to researching the safety of HIV pre-exposure prophylaxis implants and teaching engineering concepts in 8 a.m. classes once performed on the open-mic circuit in North Carolina’s Triangle of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill.
While pursuing his doctorate in engineering at Duke University, a friend suggested stand-up comedy would be good practice in preparation for oral examinations.
“I used to have the worst anxiety about speaking in front of people. Everything would freeze up,” Su said.
His first 3-minute routine went well. The audience responded to his somewhat stream-of-conscious observations. The second performance, not so much. But he kept at it, practicing timing and quips (a friend told him he sounded like he “should be holding a glass of bourbon”). That trial-by-fire worked. He overcame his fear of public speaking.
It also taught him more than a little about how to teach.
“When you’re teaching, it’s just like stand-up comedy,” Su said. “No one wants to hear you go on for 20 minutes before there’s a payoff. You have to keep things interesting. You have to keep people engaged. It really is kind of a show.
“Teaching an 8 a.m. class? That’s nothing if you’re trying to get up in front of some drunk people and say, ‘Here’s a comedy show!’”
Unlike stand-up, Su came to engineering naturally.
He grew up the second of four children of two college professors in Boca Raton, Florida. His father is a mechanical engineering professor; his mother a mathematics education professor. All three siblings have doctorates.
“Teaching was much more exciting to me than doing scientific research all the time. You get to know the students. You get to help them understand things.”
Someone in his youth explained that engineering was solving problems with math. That idea appealed to him, and he followed that interest through an undergraduate degree at Stanford University, a master’s degree at Cornell University, his Ph.D. at Duke University and post-doctoral research at Northwestern University in Chicago.
Throughout all that education, he felt called to teach. That’s what drew him to Elon and its growing engineering program.
“Teaching was much more exciting to me than doing scientific research all the time,” Su says. “You get to know the students. You get to help them understand things. I think at traditional engineering schools (with giant lecture halls), someone shows you the material and then says, ‘I’m going to test you on it.’ That was not always the model that was successful for me. I had to go back and teach it to myself. The opportunity to more gently help students understand the concepts is much more appealing to me.”
Dedication to students hasn’t kept him from important biomedical research.
Su is co-author of a paper with faculty at Northwestern University, Tulane University, and Eastern Virginia Medical School: “A Subcutaneous Implant of Tenofovir Alafenamide Fumarate Causes Local Inflammation and Tissue Necrosis in Rabbits and Macaques.” Just published in Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy, the journal of the American Society for Microbiology, it follows a study showing that implants of the HIV-preventing drug Tenofovir Alafenamide Fumarate damage surrounding tissues at even the smallest effective doses.
Truvada, an oral drug, currently is the only FDA-approved medication for pre-exposure prophylaxis. It must be taken at least four times a week to be effective in preventing the transmission of HIV. Adherence to that routine is the biggest challenge to the drug’s efficacy because people sometimes forget or neglect to take their medications.
TAF, a newer drug developed by Gilead, is potent enough to fight the spread of HIV in smaller doses, making it a candidate for implantable devices. Through millions of dollars in grants, the National Institutes of Health has been urging the development of such a device that would deliver protective doses of TAF over an extended length of time.
The NIH-funded team’s research of the implants on primates and rabbits has implications for planned human trials of TAF implants.
“What we found is when you do this, we get inflammation and tissue necrosis, even at the lowest but still-protective doses. This is significant because the NIH and other private agencies have spent tens of millions of dollars pursuing TAF implants.”
“What we found is when you do this, we get inflammation and tissue necrosis, even at the lowest but still-protective doses,” Su said. “This is significant because the NIH and other private agencies have spent tens of millions of dollars pursuing TAF implants, and there is currently a clinical trial for a TAF implant of a different design planned in South Africa.”
The study concludes: “These factors caused us to conclude this implant is unsafe and to terminate pre-clinical development efforts towards this TAF implant for long-acting HIV prevention and treatment.”
That clarity of communication paired with intensive research is something Su strives to instill in Elon’s engineering students.
“Learning how to communicate is very important. I’ve had opportunities because I can write a little better than some engineering graduates and post-docs,” Su said.
Employers also value the ability to effectively communicate and work in teams. “You can’t just be someone who can do the math,” Su said.
Su believes that over time, Elon’s engineering program will distinguish itself and its graduates through its robust integration of the liberal arts.
“I hope we turn out successful, well-rounded people who have technical ability, but also the ability to communicate the thoughtfulness that comes out of being at a liberal arts school, with the ability to write, the ability to talk, and,” he said, “that they don’t have to go out and become stand-up comics to learn public speaking.”