Steven M. Cramer came to Rensselaer in 1986, excited at the prospect of working with Professor Georges Belfort, one of the major pioneers in the field of bioseparations. Today, Cramer is widely regarded as a pioneer in his own right: a worldwide leader in chromatographic bioprocessing and an expert in separations in general.
His accomplishments have earned him a number of prestigious awards, including his recent appointment as the Institute’s William Weightman Walker Professor of Polymer Engineering. As an endowed professorship, it is the highest honor bestowed upon a faculty member. It also is one of the two oldest named professorships at Rensselaer.
Cramer is the inaugural recipient of the Alan S. Michaels Award for the Recovery of Biological Products, the editor of the journal Separation Science and Technology, and a fellow of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering. He also has been honored by the National Science Foundation and with several teaching awards.
“The most rewarding thing about teaching is
its potential to transform,” Cramer says.
Yet he points to his doctoral graduates as his most significant accomplishment.
“My former students are major players in the bioprocessing industry in this country,” Cramer says. “They are doing great work, enabling companies to come up with more efficient processes and helping to advance the entire industry. That is what I’m most proud of.”
His research focuses on using chromatography and developing new technology to separate and purify biological compounds. The resulting discoveries have led not only to a deeper understanding of chromatography but also to the development of tools that improve the separation process and, ultimately, may make new medications possible by finding ways to separate substances that previously could not be isolated.
Before a drug can be injected into the body, it must be extremely pure a process that typically requires many separations, each of which is expensive.
“If we can make the process more efficient and more economical, we can make drugs more affordable,” Cramer explains.
He and his collaborators are responsible for a major shift in the field of displacement chromatography and the way that proteins are purified. Their work has resulted in at least four patents that have been commercialized and are now being used in the biotech industry.
Cramer traces his interest in biotechnology and separations to his father’s multiple sclerosis. Watching his father suffer, Cramer says, “I knew I wanted to work in medical-related research.”
He began as an undergraduate at Brown University, where he majored in biomedical engineering before pursing his master’s and doctorate in chemical engineering at Yale University. It was the early 1980s, the biotech industry was just emerging, and Cramer was quick to recognize its potential. “I saw that there would be a tremendous need for people trained in bioseparations, so I chose that as the topic for my thesis,” he says.
Since coming to Rensselaer as an assistant professor, Cramer has rapidly advanced through the ranks of the faculty. In 1990 he was named the Isermann Associate Professor of Chemical Engineering after only three years; five years later he became a full professor and, for a time, served as acting department head of Chemical and Biological Engineering.
Currently, in addition to serving as the William Weightman Walker Professor of Polymer Engineering in the Isermann Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, Cramer is a member of the Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies (CBIS), which “provides a tremendous environment for multidisciplinary research. Here, I’m just one professor in a long line of productive people, and that’s very exciting,” Cramer says. “My approach to research is to try to be as creative as possible,” he adds. “The way to do that is to collaborate with others at the intersection of different fields. The CBIS provides my research group with an unparalleled opportunity for carry out cutting-edge multidisciplinary biotechnology-related research.”
Cramer teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in separations and bioseparations engineering. His focus is on engaging students in problem solving and the give-and-take of learning. Whenever possible, he incorporates the latest developments in the field into the curriculum.
As a teacher, he takes great satisfaction in the growth of his students. “The most rewarding thing about teaching is its potential to transform,” Cramer says.
He cites examples of undergraduates who begin with little or no knowledge of separations engineering and end the semester proficient in what Cramer has taught. Even more rewarding “is to watch as a graduate student is transformed from someone who does not have a great deal of knowledge or experience in the field into a world-class bioseparations engineer.”
To read more about Steven Cramer, go to www.rpi.edu/dept/chem-eng/WWW/faculty/cramer/.