Graduating with Wisdom

When 1,000 graduates of Polytechnic Institute of New York University (NY-Poly) walk up the aisle of Barclays Center this Thursday to receive their diplomas, one PhD candidate will be celebrating not merely the end of the 20-hour days of deep research and the satisfaction of a well-defended thesis, but the fact that he is walking, period.

David Feder – soon to be doctor philosophy of biomedical engineering with a materials science concentration – overcame Crohn’s disease setbacks so severe during his years as a student that they left him hospitalized for weeks, housebound for years, and in a wheelchair for nearly 12 months. Yet the very pursuit of his degree provided the inspiration to keep going.

“I was housebound for such a long time after receiving my master’s degree that finally getting out to study gave me a great feeling of accomplishment. It made me take my studies seriously,” Feder said.

Feder, of Englewood, N.J., received his bachelor’s degree in engineering from Yeshiva University in 1992, then went to work in the family business. He entered the NYU-Poly graduate program and received his degree in systems engineering in 2001. But then his disease hit again – this time keeping him out of the workforce for four years. He said he realized he needed to pursue another degree in order to get hired in an entry-level position.

He planned to get a second master’s, in biomedical engineering instrumentation – an easy and natural fit for a systems engineer. But then he went to work alongside another grad student in the biocatalysis lab of Professor Richard Gross, searching for bio-friendly alternatives to catalyze polymer reactions. Gross was so impressed by his work and his work ethic that he asked Feder to consider studying for his doctorate with him.

“I was so enamored with Professor Gross, of the work he was doing, and the way he was mentoring me,” Feder recalls. “I had never even thought about a PhD. But very quickly I told him I wanted to do it.”

So began Feder’s thesis project, optimizing a bio-catalyst called HIC – Humicola insolens cutinase – never before used to catalyze polymer synthesis. In several cases, Feder and Gross discovered that HIC can perform even better than the industry standard, N435 (CALB).
But it wasn’t to be the usual four to six year study path for a doctoral candidate in his field.

Illness struck again, severely. Feder was hospitalized, his bone marrow unable to produce white cells, leaving him without immunity yet facing a series of severe infections. When his bone marrow finally began working, the recovery began, but the pain was so intense that he was confined to a wheelchair. “I had my wife pushing me and my mother driving me – I was lucky to be surrounded by such a loving family,” Feder says.

Recalls Professor Gross: “David was so close to the finish line, having completed his experimental work and part of his thesis writing when he underwent another severe challenge to his health that lasted for about three-years. NYU-Poly’s administration showed great understanding through this period, granting and extending his leave. Many of us were doubtful he would make it back to finish the thesis, but we should never have underestimated David’s fortitude. Still very weak, David began the arduous task of writing his thesis. He worked through the weakness, doing as much as he could day-to-day, and finally reached the finish line. All though many would have sought shortcuts during this process, David never did. He stayed strong to his principles of doing excellent work and delivered a superb thesis.”
Through it all, Professor Gross kept encouraging Feder through emails that Feder treasures to this day.

After advanced medical care and a remarkable recovery, Feder’s mother fell ill. He took time from his studies again, to care for her. But Naomi Feder will rally to proudly watch her son receive his hood on Thursday. “She says she waited seven years, she cannot miss this day,” Feder says.

“David is one of the most sincere and kind persons I have ever met,” says Professor Gross.

“His passion for learning, understanding, growing as a scientist, and gaining skills that are marketable so he can support his family were the driving forces that kept him going through such remarkable adversity.”

Feder was reluctant to talk publicly about his powerful academic journey until another PhD candidate in his synagogue, who had been losing hope, told him that he took strength from David’s success.

“If there is one lesson I would pass along, it is that when you are struggling, take one step at a time,” Feder says. “You can do it, you just have to do it slowly, and plan everything out.”
He is taking that same approach to his career search, looking for the right company to deliver his seven years of experience in biocatalysis – and fortitude.

“We often take for granted ‘working healthy’, and David’s story is an inspiration for all those who are working through disabilities of many kinds to reach a goal,” says Professor Gross. “Their dream can keep them going and enable them to accomplish great things.”