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PhD graduate trades aerospace manufacturing business for career with cellular machinery

Grad seeks the unfamiliar to chart a new future in research

George Reed Bjorklund

George Reed Bjorklund graduated from ASU's School of Life Sciences with his PhD in molecular and cellular biology. After building a successful aerospace manufacturing business, he left it behind to pursue a formal education — finally landing in developmental neuroscience research. Photo: Reed Bjorklund

December 06, 2018

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for fall 2018 commencement. Read about more graduates

Reed Bjorklund has spent the majority of his adult life working as the successful owner and operator of a precision aerospace manufacturing business. As an innovator, he wanted to pursue new ideas in machining and fabrication, in addition to his work in the aerospace industry.

So, he decided to sell his business, go back to school and earn a formal degree. At the time, engineering seemed like the right fit. He started taking a variety of courses at Arizona State University and tried out a few to see how he and school would "get along." Little did he know an introductory course on cellular biology was about to change his life.

“Sitting in class, I was staring at a cutaway depiction of a cell and marveling at the intricacies of the cellular machinery. All those processes working in coordination with one another towards many small objectives that all coalesce into ever larger processes and objectives is incredible,” said Bjorklund. “Sounds a little flaky maybe, but I saw in that cell the most complicated and yet coordinated little factory that I could ever imagine. That is probably the point where I did a 180 and got a little serious about the biological sciences.”   

Bjorklund’s fascination with the machinery inside each cell, as well as with cellular systems, pushed him down a path to study developmental neuroscience for his dissertation and earn his PhD in molecular and cellular biology from the School of Life Sciences

“In my previous life, I owned Az-Tech Manufacturing Inc. We specialized in research and development and product manufacturing for the aerospace industry. We manufactured components for satellites, the space shuttles and the International Space Station for Honeywell SSO; turbine engine parts and assemblies for Allied Signal Aerospace, General Electric, and British Aerospace; rocket engine valves and bodies for TRW Aerospace; and a lot of other cool stuff for other customers,” said Bjorklund.

“But school kind of changed those plans. So, for better or worse, here I am at ASU in a field that is just a little different than what I have previously done. I believe most people thought I was crazy or stupid to give up a lucrative career for a path that was totally foreign. But the further things went in my academic career, the more my family and friends got on board with it. Now that I have actually finished, there has been a collective sigh of relief from my family, especially my wife and kids,” he said.

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in? 

Answer: I didn’t plan on studying anything in the field of biology when I first went to college. I had just sold my business and was wondering what I would do with all my new free time. I had always wanted to go to school and this seemed like the perfect time to do that. I am a “nontraditional” student. That is, I would be entering college later in life than a traditional student would.

My plan was to pursue a formal degree in mechanical engineering since I had spent most of my life in precision machining and manufacturing. So, to begin, I thought I would take a few “test” classes to see how school and I would get along together. One of those classes was an intro cellular biology course and that changed my educational focus.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

A: The ability to ignore the noise and stay on my path. Since becoming serious about an education, I have run across almost every reason imaginable to just give up. However, learning to deal with myself rather than the noise surrounding me, I have accomplished, so far, what I have set out to do.

I very rarely quote someone, but (Winston) Churchill said, “You will never reach your destination if you stop and throw stones at every dog that barks.” I still stop and throw stones occasionally — old habits die hard — but not nearly as many as I used to.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I grew up in Florence, a small town in Arizona, during the ASU Frank Kush years. I remember growing up with a LOT of talk about ASU, Frank Kush, ASU football, ASU football with Frank Kush and so on. Maybe that’s one of those things you need to experience, but it sure made ASU stand out as the place to be. Plus, I now live a few miles from here. 

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: To me, it isn’t about just one professor teaching the “most” important lesson, but rather a succession of professors that I have learned from over the years. Every professor seemed to offer a little extra something I could learn other than just the material of the course.

Like learning to do what you love from the professor that teaches with an unbelievable enthusiasm for the subject. Or learning to be knowledgeable in your chosen subject from the professor that could double as a walking encyclopedia. Or learning to care for your students like the professor that can’t stand to see one of their students fall behind. Or learning that everything isn’t as it seems from the professor that blows your mind with an alternative take on a subject.

There are a lot of different professors that have been involved in my education and what I have learned from each, good or bad, adds up to all the most important things.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: Seek out something unfamiliar to you. Try a different subject that is outside your current interests. Make a new friend that is outside your current circle. Go on an adventure, near or far, short or long, it doesn’t matter. Overall, just keep an open mind and experience all you can while you can.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: The Design and Arts Library at the College of Design North was my favorite place to relax and study. Very nice and quiet library  — I hope I didn’t just ruin it. As an added bonus, there is an outdoor patio on the second floor of the building that is nice to hang out in also.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: Rest. Then back to work doing a postdoc stint here at ASU. After that, I’ve been saying for most of life that I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up and that is still true today. There are so many different areas and opportunities that interest me, it is hard to settle down and chose a definite path. That might be a bit obvious since I have gone from manufacturing parts for the International Space Station, satellites, turbine and rocket engines to studying and analyzing neurodevelopmental disorders in mammalian systems. So, I guess we’ll just have to wait and see what opportunities or interests present themselves in the future. 

If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I don’t think $40 million dollars would go very far to tackle any one single problem facing the world. I think I would just have to blow it all on beer and late nights out.

Seriously, though, I think that some of the most pressing issues we face are environmental. Climate change, drought, pollution, and the loss of habitat and biodiversity are just a few of the most immediate challenges that face us. These points of concern are up to every one of us, individually and together, to tackle. Towards that, I would think the most bang for the buck that $40 million would bring is education. We all need to know the consequences of our immediate actions and inactions and just where that is currently leading us. Before we can fix our world’s problems, if it is even possible, we need to fix ourselves.

Q: What’s something you are most proud of during your time at ASU?

A: That I lasted. At times it seemed like a battle of wills, me against everything else. Kind of dramatic, maybe, but sometimes it felt that way. In the end, however, I was able to jump all the hurdles, circumnavigate the obstacles and dodge the rest to come out the other side ready to keep on going. 

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