Distinguished Professor Emeritus Sheldon Weinbaum recently turned 70, and City College celebrated with a day of tributes from his research collaborators, former students and political soul mates. The portrait of Dr. Weinbaum which emerged is of a man whose political passion impacted the social fabric of the College as much as his brilliant research and exceptional teaching contributed to its academic reputation.
Dr. Weinbaum arrived at the Department of Mechanical Engineering in 1967, armed with a Ph.D. from Harvard. He had left a promising career at General Electric and turned down a teaching offer from Princeton. As CCNY President Gregory Williams said in his tribute, Dr. Weinbaum was almost fired one year later when, true to his beliefs, he led an anti-war demonstration in Steinman Hall. In the 1970s, when City College was at its financial nadir, Dr. Weinbaum was disillusioned by the abandonment of free tuition, but he realized that the school had the opportunity to become a pioneer in diversity, a cause which he embraced wholeheartedly. In 1992, this led him to spearhead a group of CUNY professors and students in a lawsuit against New York State, Weinbaum vs. Cuomo, which contended that the state’s financing of public higher education was racially discriminatory, favoring the overwhelmingly white SUNY over CUNY which was two thirds minority.
Through it all, Dr. Weinbaum maintained a research career of exceptional breadth, brilliance and productivity. He is one of only six living Americans to be a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine. In 2002 he became the first engineer to be awarded a Guggenheim fellowship in molecular and cellular biology.
Dr. Weinbaum’s intuitive imagination has allowed him to posit revolutionary hypotheses on how organs and cells function. His breakthroughs, made with numerous collaborators in the biological sciences, include the discovery of the pore through which LDL cholesterol crosses the endothelium, the role of cellular-size microcalcifications in the rupture of the fibrous caps of vulnerable plaque leading to thrombosis, and the Weinbaum-Jiji equation for bioheat transfer. He has generated new views of how osmotic forces function across the endothelium of capillaries, of how bones sense mechanical stress, of the role of brush border microvilli in sensing and regulating the flow in the renal tubules, and of how red cells can ski through our capillaries to greatly prolong their life.
Dr. Weinbaum’s passion for biomedical engineering has translated into a new realm of expertise at City College. Working with Dr. Stephen Cowin, junior faculty, and since 2003, the new Chair of Biomedical Engineering Dr. John Tarbell, he has leveraged three Special Opportunity Awards from the Whitaker Foundation and grants from the Sloan and Wallace Coulter Foundations and the National Institutes of Health to establish a biomedical engineering program at City College. These efforts have resulted in a full-fledged Department of Biomedical Engineering at the Grove School, a new CUNY Ph.D. program in this field, and the New York Center for Biomedical Engineering. This consortium, in which CCNY is the linchpin, brings together eight of New York City’s most prestigious hospitals and medical schools in a hub for teaching and translational research. It gives CCNY students access to facilities and instructors which are unequalled and has catapulted the Grove School Department of Biomedical Engineering into a leadership position in the field.
Though Dr. Weinbaum is retiring from the classroom, he will continue to work full-time at the Grove School, doing research and advising graduate students.