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GSA President Justin Mathew Juggles Leadership Role with Life as Grad Student

Justin Mathew
Justin Mathew (center) with members of the Graduate Student Association executive board at the Academy of Natural Sciences.

November 1, 2013

Justin Mathew was in his lab, preparing specimens for experiments, when the phone rang.

He picked it up. The woman on the phone was calling with a reminder: As the president of the Graduate Student Association, Mathew was scheduled to speak at Drexel’s Convocation. And the ceremony started in about 15 minutes.

This, for whatever reason, was news to him.

In a panic, Mathew threw his experiment in an incubator and took off, running from his lab in Bossone Research Enterprise Center toward the Main Building. His heart was pounding as he looked down and saw what he was wearing for the occasion: a pink hooded sweatshirt, jeans and Chuck Taylor sneakers.

When he arrived at the auditorium, he threw on some regalia and walked almost immediately onstage, where he sat behind President John Fry, and thought about what to say. When it was time, he told the hundreds of faculty members in the audience a bit about himself: how he’s finishing up a PhD in mechanical engineering after attending Drexel as an undergraduate (“which basically means I’ve been here for my entire life,” he said) and how he recently enjoyed an eye-opening experience taking part in an exchange program in Germany. He finished with a joke.

And when it was over, he headed back to the lab. And he breathed.

“It’s one of those experiences that you appreciate about three days later,” Mathew said, “after you’ve calmed down.”

This is perhaps the most dramatic example of the juggling act Mathew must perform to serve as the GSA’s president while staying on target to finish his doctoral program by June. But even if the job requires some late nights and sprints through the hallway, he’s still glad he ran for the presidency, because he believes in breaking through the graduate-student bubble.

That’s a common phenomenon, he said, in which grad students rarely leave the confines of their department or laboratory to interact with other people around the University or the rest of the world. “It’s unfortunate, because you can learn so much from people in different areas of research,” Mathew said. “It can really help you see something that wasn’t there before.” His hope as the GSA president, he says, is to burst the bubble.

Venturing outside the bubble can also help grad students network for career purposes and learn skills outside of their disciplines. So when Mathew saw students from different disciplines coming together for GSA social events, he wanted to help make that happen.

“It’s something that you really don’t see with graduate students,” Mathew said. “I feel like there’s a huge disconnect. People just do the research and then go home.”

The GSA tries to bridge that gap through monthly social events, outreach efforts such as a food drive for Philabundance and a new interdisciplinary Creativity and Innovation Colloquium series designed to help students channel their research abilities into career opportunities. A new career network for master’s and doctoral students is also in the works.

As for Mathew’s own career, he hopes to eventually work as a project leader for a major pharmaceutical company, helping to develop drugs or medical devices. His research interest is in mechanical stimuli that can aid angiogenesis — the growth of blood vessels — in people with diabetes, a disease that runs in the families of both of his parents.

“When I tell people I’m doing my mechanical engineering PhD, they say, ‘Oh, are you going to work for Mercedes-Benz when you’re done?’” he said. “And I’m like, ‘Not quite.’”

Mathew, who had lived in Philadelphia his whole life, went through his own bubble-bursting experience during a six-month fellowship in Germany in 2012, during which he worked for a cancer drug research company. Living with a group of roommates from different countries around the world, he said, opened his eyes to a more global view of the world.

Mathew hopes for all Drexel graduate students to make such connections to the rest of the planet, and to the rest of the University, and that’s why he’s glad to continue with his double life as a student and a leader, hallway sprinting and all.

“It makes you feel like you do have a say,” Mathew said, “and Drexel students do have an effect on what goes on around them.”