April 12, 2009
The NCAA's latest television ad campaign touts "student-athletes going pro in something other than sports." Owl golfer Erik Petersen's experiences at Rice University and the senior's future could effortlessly be visualized as part of that campaign.
Just picture Petersen being transformed from lining up a putt to watching a laser bend light through an optical lens.
After wrapping up his collegiate playing career at Rice this spring, Petersen will return to the research and development department at Alcon Laboratories in Fort Worth where he worked two summers ago with a lens-design team running experiments in an effort to get the right kind of optical corrections for lenses the company makes.
Alcon Laboratories may best be known for its Opti-Free contact solutions but in addition to consumer products, the company makes equipment necessary to perform optical operations and intraocular lenses. The lenses are usually used to replace existing crystalline lenses which have been clouded over by a cataract or in refractive surgery to change an eye's optical power.
"The two main projects we focused on dealt with chromatic aberrations," Petersen said. "We designed tests to shine different colors of light through a lens focusing on images and pictures such as eye charts. We would check to see to what degree it would blur the image. Depending on if you shine a red light or a blue light or a green light, the image may be perfectly legible one way and totally indistinguishable another.
"We were working to figure out how we could tailor either the shape of the lens or the material properties of the lens to get optimum results," he said.
Petersen is on track to become only the fourth Rice student-athlete to graduate with a degree in bioengineering. He currently carries a 3.789 grade point average and will graduate this fall.
Petersen has also been involved in the golf program's community outreach which in the past year has included clinics for The First Tee of Houston as well as for children of Rice staff who did not have available day care following Hurricane Ike.
Following graduation, he plans to attend medical school and has an interest in becoming a surgeon.
Last summer Petersen was in line to return to Alcon Laboratories as an intern but a fractured talus bone sustained while running the campus' outer loop led to him focusing on rehab. This summer he will be back in Alcon's lab for a second internship.
"I don't know how far they have gotten on the projects in the past two years so it will be interesting to see where I get plugged back in," he said.
Petersen said he knew he wanted to study bioengineering at Rice but didn't know what direction he wanted to take the degree program.
"With the internship at Alcon, I have received a pretty good taste of what it is like to work in research as well as had an opportunity to see what it was like working for a large medical company in a field outside of research," he said. "From doing the work, I really want to have more of a hands-on experience with the medical aspect."
The bioengineering degree path has given Petersen an opportunity to take several courses in biomechanics and biomaterials. He has listened to his professors mention what's going on in both fields and how they relate to medicine. The conversations with professors, the curriculum at Rice and his summer internship have all helped to lead him down the cart path toward career goals.
"You get so many ideas popping into your head," he said. "As a physician with a background in bioengineering, I wonder about working with researchers to develop an implant then developing an operation that would make the surgery easier. My goal is to become a physician where I am in a position to advance surgery and make life better for people."
Orthopedic surgery is one avenue Petersen would like to explore.
After his foot injury last year, he had plenty of opportunities to visit with orthopedic surgeons about their field of medicine.
"The first time I went to the emergency room I had a chance to talk to a physician who was in his last year of residency for orthopedic surgery," Petersen said. "He was a young guy just getting started with his career in medicine and I spoke with him about his experiences. The athletic department set me up with Dr. Thomas Clanton who is the leading orthopedic surgeon in Houston as far as ankles and knees go and I got to talk to him a lot. And I spent a lot of time at the Roger Clemens Institute during rehab and there are orthopedic surgeons all over the place that always want to talk about how great their profession is."
Petersen is also drawn to orthopedic surgery because of the time spent with his father working with wood and learning how to use tools associated with carpentry.
"Of all the classes I have taken at Rice, the ones I really became interested in were classes in biomechanics and biomaterials which are relevant to how bones work; how tendons and ligaments work; and how everything works together," he said. "The Tommy John surgery for baseball pitchers was revolutionary. And now we're getting to a point with science where possibly ligaments and tendons can be grown artificially. Who knows where medical science is going in the near future."
Having a goal to advance medical science makes Petersen one of Tomorrow's Leaders.