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ENG’s Herbert Voigt Remembered as Dedicated Researcher, Mentor

Helped build biomedical engineering into nationally ranked program

Herbert Voigt

Herbert Voigt, a College of Engineering professor of biomedical engineering, died suddenly on January 25. Photo courtesy of the College of Engineering

Friends and colleagues are mourning the loss of Herbert Voigt, a College of Engineering professor of biomedical engineering, who died suddenly last Thursday at age 65. Voigt is largely credited with building the biomedical engineering department into one of the nation’s largest and highest ranked programs of its kind.

“Herb Voigt had enormous, positive impact on the BME department, especially in its earliest days,” says H. Steven Colburn, an ENG professor of biomedical engineering and director of the Hearing Research Center, chair of the department when Voigt joined BU in 1981 after earning a PhD at Johns Hopkins University. He was one of only three faculty in the department.

“He came with deep commitments to research, to teaching, and to the department,” Colburn says. “He was an uplifting and optimistic presence through the years of developing the department and its reputation. He was also a delightful person and a caring teacher.”

“He was truly a pioneer in transforming the BME department from an undergraduate-only program to an active, full-research one with master’s and PhD programs,” says Kenneth Lutchen, dean of ENG. “Herb also amplified the department’s influence nationally in its early years through his service as a leader in several biomedical engineering organizations.”

Voigt was also a School of Medicine associate research professor of otolaryngology. His primary research focused on the neuronal circuitry in the cochlear nucleus, a complex within the brain stem that transmits information from the inner ear to the brain. As principal investigator of BU’s Auditory Neurophysiology Laboratory, he sought to better understand how the brain responds to sound. He made intracellular recordings that could identify the role specific neurons play in the physiology of hearing. This could lead to practical applications such as better tools for those with hearing problems, Colburn says.

John White, an ENG professor and chair of biomedical engineering, says that in the days following Voigt’s death, he has heard from countless biomedical researchers whose lives Voigt touched.

“My inbox has been flooded with emails from my colleagues around the world, telling me stories of Herb’s kindness, leadership, and generosity,” White says.

Friendliness, empathy from extraordinary mentor

Throughout his career, in the classroom and through the many professional organizations he helped lead, Voigt was known for being an extraordinary mentor who influenced the course of numerous careers.

“Professor Voigt had a profound impact on my life,” says Warren Grill (ENG’89), now the Duke University Edmund T. Pratt, Jr., School Professor of Biomedical Engineering. “My experience in his lab during the summer of 1988 and the following academic year changed the course of my career and inspired me to pursue academia. He provided an environment of respect and excitement, where individuals were enabled and encouraged to pursue their ideas and passions.”

Grill recalls that when he was an undergraduate research assistant, there was an occasion when Voigt and others were celebrating a new publication in the Journal of Neurophysiology. “Naively, I asked, ‘How much did you get paid to publish that paper?’ After recovering from several minutes of uncontrolled laughter, Professor Voigt explained to me that rather than being paid, he had to pay to publish such a paper. To this day, every time I pay an invoice for page charges, I reflect fondly on my time in Professor Voigt’s lab,” Grill says.

Decades after first meeting him, many researchers can recall Voigt’s friendliness and empathy. Justin Williams, a University of Wisconsin–Madison professor and chair of biomedical engineering, first met Voigt more than 20 years ago, at a Biomedical Engineering Society meeting. Williams was just a graduate student at the time, he says, but Voigt bought him a beer and talked with him for two hours about research, as well as “all sorts of things, from job prospects to life in general.”

Williams reminded Voigt of that encounter recently, he says, and Voigt just chuckled and said that it sounded like something he would do. “I took that to mean that he’d probably sat down and chatted and given advice to so many young students over the years that he couldn’t remember them all,” Williams says.

Herbert Voigt receiving the Outstanding Service and Dedication Award from the biomedical engineering honor society Alpha Eta Mu Beta in 2016.

Herbert Voigt (fourth from left), with the Outstanding Service and Dedication Award he received from the biomedical engineering honor society Alpha Eta Mu Beta in 2016. Photo courtesy of Alpha Eta Mu Beta

Voigt’s interest in biomedical engineering issues and global health and development took him all over the world, notably to Nigeria, Sweden, Malaysia, and Peru. He received a 2014–15 Fulbright Scholar grant to the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru, where he helped develop a new biomedical engineering PhD program and worked with the Instituto Nacional de Salud (Peru’s version of the National Institutes of Health) to create a research program to detect heavy metals in biological samples.

Throughout his career, Voigt was active in numerous professional organizations. As president of the International Union for Physical and Engineering Sciences in Medicine, he helped develop programs that promote women in engineering and global health issues. He was also a long-standing member and a former president of the Biomedical Engineering Society and in 2016 received the Outstanding Service and Dedication Award from Alpha Eta Mu Beta, the biomedical engineering honor society. “Herb was also a fun person to relax with after a long day of meetings at conferences,” said Teresa Murray, Alpha Eta Mu Beta president and a Louisiana Tech University associate professor of biomedical engineering. “He was brilliant, approachable, helpful, and encouraging. He will be missed.”

He was also active in his community, serving as an elected town meeting member and an elected Milton Public Library trustee. At the time of his death, he was president of the Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms Society of Boston. He loved and was curious about nature, so he erected a bat house, led annual spring expeditions to vernal pools to watch salamanders emerge from hibernation, and was planning to take up beekeeping.

Voigt is survived by his wife of 42 years, Ronit, and his children, Justin and Emily.

A celebration of his life will be held on Tuesday, January 30, 2018, at 11 am, at Lombardo’s, 6 Billings St., Randolph, Mass, followed by a luncheon reception. Shiva will be held at the family home on Tuesday and Wednesday from 7 to 9 pm.

In lieu of flowers, donations can be made in Voigt’s memory to the Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms Society, PO Box 470528, Brookline, MA 02447, or to Congregation Beth Shalom of the Blue Hills, 18 Shoolman Way, Milton, MA 02186.

Joel Brown, writer, BU Today at Boston University
Joel Brown

Joel Brown can be reached at jbnbpt@bu.edu.

4 Comments on ENG’s Herbert Voigt Remembered as Dedicated Researcher, Mentor

  • Jeff Cruikshank on 01.30.2018 at 9:35 am

    Nice tribute, Joel. I knew Herb from overlapping kids and town politics in Milton. He and Ronit were on the right side of every (difficult) issue, and worked hard to make Milton a better town. I will miss him.

  • Denis Bustin on 01.30.2018 at 9:47 am

    What a sad shock. Herb was truly a “scholar and a gentleman.” Sincere condolences to his wonderful family. To Joel Brown, your obituary really captured the man.

  • William Skocpol on 01.30.2018 at 1:38 pm

    Another service that Herb Voigt rendered was to serve as the Chair of the Faculty Assembly / Faculty Council during 2003-4, an important transitional period for the University. His calm, diligent, and thoughtful leadership helped usher in the opportunity for subsequent Faculty Council Chairs to serve on the Boston University Board of Trustees.

  • Kamran Hassani on 06.04.2018 at 8:56 am

    I met firstly Herb in 2011 in IFMBE conference in Budapest when he presented his new ethical research. He warmly welcomed me and helped me many times to attend the IFMBE conferences. I remember he asked even the organizer to use his credit card and pay the registration fee on behalf of me because I had no credit card facility. I am now in IUPESM 2018 and just now knew that he has passed away. He is never be forgotten. He always believed that the only issue that can help a society to improve is: education and not execution. The united states of America is well known and introduced for Iranians only by such kind of great people like Herbert Voigt. I am sure that his soul is at peace and in paradise.

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