Alumni Spotlight: Nina Tandon EE’01
POSTED ON: April 5, 2021
We interviewed Nina Tandon EE’01 who has had a very successful career as a biomedical engineer and is the CEO & Co-Founder of EpiBone. Flip through below and learn more about how Cooper has positively impacted her career journey.
Why did you decide to come to Cooper?
Since my older sister was a student, I saw firsthand how good of a school it was. I knew that I also wanted a technical education, so I applied to Cooper and MIT. Those were the only two schools I applied to at that time, and when I got accepted to both, I really had to think carefully about where to go. MIT is a bigger school with a bigger brand on the world stage, but also very expensive while Cooper’s undergraduate school was just as exclusive than MIT, and it was free. So, I thought to myself: do I want to go to a top engineering school and spend $50k/year versus zero? Choosing Cooper made the most sense to me at that time. I know that equation is changing now but not having to compromise on excellence and having the opportunity to graduate debt free was a very big deal to me. I understand Cooper is slowly progressing towards free. I am glad to hear things are progressing in that direction.
How did your experiences and your education at Cooper shape your life after college and your career path thus far?
At Cooper, we had a dynamic mix of professors who were adjuncts in the real world as well as professional academics. The grounding they brought in both theory and practice was empowering – I could build things! As a student, my project classes were certainly the most challenging and are the classes that stuck most with me – I loved the creative nature of working with my hands. And along the way we I learned all these different computer programming languages to get through electrical engineering such as Basic, C, C++, and even microchip assembly language, which turned out to be my favorite one. Adding on top of that the photography and shop courses I was able to take in the art school, the humanities classes, and the Italian and Hindi classes I took, I definitely left Cooper confident in my ability to learn.
Did you have a favorite Cooper Professor, mentor, class that impacted your life?
Hands-down Professor Toby Cumberbatch, who was my advisor for senior design. Keep in mind that this class is perhaps the biggest project that any of us had really undertaken until that point – it took an entire school year where you just devoted yourself to this one project -- it was like showing up to a job every day. I took very minimal classes my senior year, since I had overloaded on classes up until that point, so I could treat senior design like a full-time job. I showed up every day at 9:00 AM to work while taking a class here and there. It served as a good transition into working life. In our case, we were building a wireless computer mouse that was built on infrared light, and this was 20 years ago, before the Nintendo Wii, an interface that was designed on the same principle. It was a difficult problem to solve involving both hardware and software, but also just fun and fulfilling. Professor Cumberbatch still jokes about how he was a bit curmudgeonly as an advisor. We would be so proud of ourselves because we got to a certain point and he would be like, “this does not matter. This is just the beginning. You must keep pushing and make it faster, make it work,” which was frustrating, but formative advice in my life, as a technical person – demos are hard! My other favorite class was the history of food with Professor Peter Buckley. I loved the humanities classes at Cooper, and that class, really got me thinking about nutrition, and culture in a different way. Both senior design and the HSS class were both formative classes for me.
What important and memorable moment did you experience at Cooper?
When I received the Benjamin Menschel Fellowship my senior year. It was an opportunity for me as an engineer to really branch out and learn how to make art and think like a visual or conceptual artist. I had the opportunity to exhibit in a group show alongside artists. This was a huge experience and beautiful memory for me. Getting a chance to exhibit in the art school and the foundation building with people who were much more established in that arena and getting the chance to really branch out into the arts was a big deal for me.
During my time at Cooper, I worked as a writing tutor in the Center for Writing. It allowed me to support myself while also tutoring other students which I found enjoyable. Writing has become such a big part of my life. I have a book that I have published, and I have written many academic papers, and I am currently writing another book proposal. Working at the Center for Writing afforded me the opportunity to branch out beyond engineering, that and with the Benjamin Menschel Fellowship, and HSS classes. The Italian classes I took very directly helped pave the way for my Fulbright Fellowship in Italy. I got a deep technical education but also a broad one too.
What did you learn at Cooper that has served you well throughout your life?
I guess we kind of touched on it earlier. I think grew me into the kind of engineer that is a bit scrappy. If I need to learn something, I am always like OK, I can figure this out. It also made me unafraid to dive into a technical space and teaming up with people who know things that I do not know, to solve interesting problems. In my current role, I have had to assemble a team where we can do difficult things right and find the answers together.
Tell us about your career and current job?
I run a stem cell startup called EpiBone. We combine digital fabrication, like 3D printing and 3D carving with stem cells to make living skeletal replacements. We are growing bone, cartilage, combinations of bone and cartilage, and we are just starting our first human clinical trial. We have a team of 18 people and are based out of Brooklyn, NY. A lot of Cooper grads have worked for us and one of our co-founders used to run the machine shop at Cooper. In many ways, it feels like we are at the beginning. I started the company 6 1/2 years ago, almost seven, and we are implanting our first patients now. It feels a little like we are at the end of one chapter, but we are still very much at the beginning of our next chapter. It is a very exciting place to be. It is fun and stressful, but I usually like a good challenge. The real challenge with this job is to make sure that you show up every day to run a marathon, cheerfully. You must have that joy or else there is no fuel. How do you keep up the stamina to really tackle a problem that's 20 years long? You assemble a team of people that show up every day and have enough joy for it that you are not burning out.
What one piece of advice do you have for current Cooper students or for students who will be graduating, and entering the “real world” soon?
Community. You must find your tribe. If you are a misfit, chances are, that is a great thing but if you want to solve big problems, you have to join forces with others. Every challenge can be broken down into pieces and there will be pieces that you can solve now and there will be others that can be solved if you team up with other people. If we are lucky, we will all live to 100 - what are you going to do with your 100 and how are you going to team up with other people to use theirs? That is really what I want to impart to students. Break things down into a bite you can chew. Current students that are coming of age now during this pandemic are going through a lot and my heart breaks for them. And yet, I have so much faith in their resilience, our collective resilience. I am seeing evidence of this in the young and old, and everyone in between. I have faith in the power of compassion, grace, science, and humility. I do not know what the future holds, but I am hopeful.
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