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He left his comfort zone to explore the frontiers of engineering and culture

Recent graduate Conor Messer has lived, worked, and studied in Boston, Germany, and Jordan. Now, supported by a Fulbright Scholarship, he’s headed to Abu Dhabi to design a robot to perform minimally invasive cardiac surgery. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

Ever since he can remember, Conor Messer has found himself drawn to the peripheries of his comfort zone. Raised in inner-city Denver, it wasn’t unusual for him to cross paths with people who didn’t look anything like him in his neighborhood, at church and at school.

Years later, as a student at Northeastern, Messer was more deliberate about leaving his comfort zone. In his third year, he moved to Spain for six weeks to study the history of Islam and Catholic pilgrimage.

When that ended, he hopped over to Kiel, Germany, to design implants for the treatment of fractures and joint replacements at a medical device company called Stryker Corporation.

He found new challenges in Jordan, a country that in almost every way was different from everything he’d known. He couldn’t speak Arabic, didn’t recognize the food, and found certain ideas about authority, family, and religion foreign. It was perfect. He stayed for five months to volunteer with a Christian organization that provided clothes and meals to Iraqi and Syrian refugees and taught them English.

And then he returned to Boston, took up Arabic language lessons, and formed a student group on campus called Bridging the Divide, which aims to break down misconceptions between Muslims and Christians and give followers of both faiths a space to learn more about each other. All the while he continued to pursue his interest in engineering and robotics.

“I think all of those experiences together definitely brought in my understanding and my perspective and really allowed me think about diverse issues, both from an engineering perspective as well as from a more philosophical or spiritual perspective,” Messer said in an interview a few days after he graduated from Northeastern earlier this month. “And just being exposed to Middle Eastern cultures, and Jordan, really unearthed an interest in the region.”

Messer was among 10 Northeastern students who received Fulbright Scholarships this year. The scholarship is a prestigious award that provides grants for research projects or English teaching assistant programs. Past winners have included former United States Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, author Jonathan Franzen, and soprano Renee Fleming.

“It was incredible,” he said about learning that he’d won the award. “It was Senior Week and I was running errands. I was between meetings with some different mentors downtown and saw the email and was just overjoyed.”

The Fulbright will allow Messer to step out of his comfort zone once more. Armed with a degree in bioengineering, he plans to return to the Middle East this fall. This time, he will head to Abu Dhabi, where he will spend a year at the Khalifa University Center for Autonomous Robotic Systems to develop robotic technology that uses compliant materials to perform minimally invasive cardiac surgery.

The advantage of soft robots, he said, is that they are compliant enough to travel through an artery, yet precise enough to apply a suture to the atrioventricular valve during cardiac surgery.

“With the Fulbright grant, I will be developing fabrication strategies for just such a device in the United Arab Emirates while also exploring the specific needs and values of the Middle Eastern region,” he said.

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