A Change in Plans

2010-04-23 09:11

By Lyndsey Morgan

Advice to Duke Students from Pratt alumnus Herbie Bohnet: Work hard, have fun. 

This is apropos advice coming from Bohnet, who graduated in 2000 with a double major in biomedical and mechanical engineering. A major highlight of his college career was watching the goalposts travel up Chapel Drive after a winning football game.

Like most engineering students, when Bohnet was at Duke, he spent many an hour working and running experiments in the basement of Hudson Hall or enjoying the view out of his triple room by the bus stop.

“I can still remember all that time working with other students and running crash tests for the lab,” he said, laughing.

He attributes a great deal of his success now to his time spent in Pratt. “I learned that a systematic approach to problems is helpful,” Bohnet recalled. “Pratt really taught me that you need to put in a little work to get the right answer.” Bohnet admits that “engineering school taught me how to work; it helped me develop my sense of work ethic.”

Bohnet has also attributes his ability to work with other people from different backgrounds and experience levels to his lab experiences with graduate and undergraduate students.

When Bohnet came to Duke as a freshman, he planned to be a physician and was sure that orthopedic surgery was the right career for him. This changed when he started taking engineering classes and found himself interested in the field of technology.  As often happens, few people graduate from college with the same plans they had when they entered. Bohnet’s mind changed again during the summer before his senior year when he realized he was not interested in becoming a practicing engineer.

“I spent the summer with the father of our Duke sailing coach,” he recalls. “He worked for an aerospace company and talked about how he worked with a patent lawyer who came in, got to know the new technology, wrote the patent application, and then moved on to the next innovation.”

Bohnet found this type of work fascinating as it encompassed several of his interests. “It sounded like a great way to stay at the cutting edge without getting bogged down in the ongoing details of manufacturing, etc,” he said of his new career of choice.

After graduation, Bohnet found himself at Stanford Law instead of medical school as he had originally planned, and after law school he took a job with a big firm doing patent work involving IT in Boston. “It was fine,” he said of this patent work. “I saw some cool inventions, but the legal work was, in my opinion, very technical and not as focused on the technology as I thought.

“By chance I tried some of the endowment investment work and I really liked it,” he added. “I think there was a steeper learning curve, so I was able to feel like I knew what I was doing more quickly.”

After this experience in endowments, he quickly transferred out of patent law and into investment work, eventually finding himself enjoying the environment of the Investment Fund for Foundations (TIFF) better than the big firm. At TIFF, Bohnet helps small groups without investment staffs find creative techniques to get the same level of investments that larger groups enjoy.

“I work with great people and feel really good about what I do,” he explained. “I think the work is interesting and keeps me engaged.” Bohnet is especially fond of TIFF’s mission, which is to help small charitable organizations grow their endowments. “Since most of those endowments are used for good causes, I sleep pretty well at night.”

Herbie’s transition into the work world took some time. Simply put, his avid love for a “wake-up and go” routine and wearing flip-flops all of the time proved a poor fit with his career choice.

He has since graduated from these routines to a more adult lifestyle. For fun, he finds time to attend Red Sox games in Boston and catch up on Duke sports whenever he gets the chance. He also enjoys weekends in Washington DC where his wife, Carrie Simmons, is a tax attorney for the Joint Committee on Taxation. Visits to see her and their cocker spaniel Toby encouraged him to explore DC as well as Boston.

“Living in separate cities is definitely challenging,” he added. “It’s tough to organically stay connected when you’re relying on phone calls.”

Although work and home might seem night and day in Bohnet’s case, he has found that there is “not a disconnect between them.” His days run seamlessly between the two, busy at work and at home during the weekend.

“We both do all of our errands and work during the week,” Bohnet says of he and his wife. “That way we can spend the whole weekend together, and in an odd way, our weekends are more fun than they were when we lived in the same city.” 

Other than his motto of working hard and having fun, Bohnet has some good advice for current students at Duke. “Don’t get so caught up in what’s next that you forget where you are. Get involved in the projects and events that are going on around the school like the ASCE concrete canoe, or the Smart Home. These activities are as essential to your education as your classes.

“Don’t be afraid to ask for opportunities,” he continued. “When I visited Duke, I dropped by the BME office. I knew I was going to have a work study job and thought it might as well be an interesting one.” When Bohnet found out that lab jobs were sometimes a little hard to come by, he was not discouraged. “I sent the office a letter later that summer asking for a position.”

He remembers fondly the job that he got by asking for it, “It was a great job for two reasons. One, it allowed me to get to know the BME department and two, it helped me get the lab job I really wanted in Dr. Barry Myers’ lab.”