Faculty Spotlight: Jeff Hoffman
Department of Mechanical Engineering Chair, Associate Professor
Hometown: Ishpeming, Mich.
Fun Fact: Is a year-round cyclist currently growing his stay-warm winter beard, ready to bust out his fat tire winter bike.
You may remember reading about Jeff Hoffman last year. He’s the professor who fielded an unusual phone call from an Anchorage surgeon looking to create a 3-D model of a patient’s facial bone structure after a devastating accident.
“Jim [Kallman] walked in during our last week of classes, on a Tuesday. Surgery was scheduled for the following Monday,” Jeff says. “I had lectures, a stack of homework this big for all my classes, but it was an opportunity I couldn’t turn down, to help someone out.”
His challenge? Race against a ticking clock to isolate all the bone and bone fragments in CT scan images—which show all tissues—and render a 3-D skull model to aid the surgeon in forming restructuring plates.
Jeff was able to deliver a model hot off UAA’s 3-D printer the Saturday before surgery, giving Dr. Kallman the time he needed to build and prep the implants in advance of the scheduled surgery.
“He said it saved him about four to five hours on his feet in the OR,” Jeff says. That’s less fatigue for the surgical team and better outcomes for the patient.
And for Jeff’s students, it gave them a front-row seat to watch innovation in action. They readily agreed to let their professor set homework aside and dive into this unique engineering-medicine partnership.
If you build it…
Jeff’s practical approach to challenges and his diverse background in academia and private industry make him a good fit to teach the mechanical engineering capstone course, Senior Projects, as well as Mechanical Design and Solid Modeling.
In Solid Modeling, students learn the software that allows them to create 3-D models of everything from, say, a skull to a skateboard truck.
On a visit to his office, he opens up a presentation file on his computer featuring photorealistic images of projects from past students.
“I call this the Hollywood rendering,” he says. “For engineers, it’s good for a sales pitch.”
He clicks through the presentation—medieval-looking apple peeler, pocket knife, Nerf gun.
The Nerf gun project by student Paul Harren went beyond the parameters of the class assignment.
“When Paul got done rendering it, he wasn’t happy with just that, so he had to put together an animation,” Jeff says with a smile, launching the animation.
The Nerf gun assembles itself on screen to the strains of a Mission Impossible score.
For Jeff and his wife, Julie, also an engineer, moving their family from the Midwest to Alaska in fall 2010 came after careful consideration of the economy. Access to great Nordic skiing tipped the scales.
“We started looking at states that weren’t deficit-driven, that are healthy. There are very few states, only four at the time we were looking,” Jeff says. “That helped narrow things down quickly.”
The list narrowed to two when they threw “must have snow” into the criteria. From there, it was a choice between North Dakota and Alaska. No contest.
They see Alaska as a great home base for their active family of five. They’re steps away from ski trails and the kids, all teenagers, are playing sports year-round and knocking it out of the park academically.
“They’re 4.0 students and claiming that they’re going to be engineers,” says Jeff.
Jeff, although a relative newcomer to Alaska and UAA, has been quick to step up as a donor to UAA’s School of Engineering.
Last year, some of Jeff’s students had approached him and expressed their desire to have a tutoring center for the School of Engineering.
“My wife, Julie, and I, we like to give a little bit, so we set that up,” Jeff says. They found space on campus and organized four upperclassmen to take tutoring shifts.
“Our donation went toward salary for the tutors,” he says. “It was good, because I knew the money was going directly into the pockets of our graduating seniors and they need the money.”
The previous year, Jeff had been impressed with the scale of the senior project undertaken by a group of dedicated students—building a mini Baja car for Society of Automotive Engineers competition. He knew the students were broke and in need of raw materials, so in 2011, he and his wife gave the gift of cold, hard steel, which was used to build the body of the car.
A team of 10 is working on this year’s Baja car, Jeff says, and actively soliciting community support. The School of Engineering is also looking for a way to make specialized engineering tutoring a permanent part of their future.
Philanthropy, he says, isn’t just about the recipients.
“There’s a benefit to the person who is giving, too. There are a lot of studies on that. When a person gives money to something, you actually get a little dopamine boost as if you’re doing something fun,” he says. “It’s obviously a win-win for everybody.”
Let’s end with a word of caution
Once the snow flies, be sure to keep a look out for the red-bearded version of this philanthropic professor. He’ll be the one commuting to campus on the fat tire bike with the face icicles.