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Piled High

Field Surgeon
Field Surgeon


With his thick white hair and chiseled face, John H. Burson looks more like a grandfather than a soldier in the U.S. Army. But in December, the 71-year-old Villa Rica, Ga., physician traded time at his ear, nose and throat practice for a three-month stint in a MASH tent in Iraq.

"I retired from the Army Reserve in 1985 but two years ago I got an e-mail offering retired medical reservists an opportunity to go to the Middle East and relieve young doctors," he says. "I have never seen war firsthand. I missed World War II and Korea and my unit was never called up for Vietnam, so I always felt like I missed something."

After earning three degrees from Tech, Burson, ChE 55, MS MET 63, PhD 64, remained on campus as a chemical engineering professor and biomedical research engineer at the Engineering Experiment Station, the forerunner of the Georgia Tech Research Institute.

"I always had an interest in the life sciences and that research renewed my interest," he says, "so I decided to become a doctor." Burson walked away from a 15-year teaching career at Tech and enrolled in the Emory University School of Medicine.

On Nov. 20, Burson boarded a flight to Fort Bliss, Texas, for a thorough physical exam followed by a two-week Army refresher course for physicians that included instruction on treating injuries caused by improvised explosive devices.

Two weeks later Burson arrived at Camp Victory in Baghdad. He was temporarily assigned as the physician at the U.S. embassy, then deployed to a field hospital.

"I don't know where I'll be going but I do know it will be a close support command for the 101st Airborne Division near Tikrit or Baghdad," Burson said before he left. "I will be working as a field surgeon providing lifesaving and stabilization for combat casualties so they can be safely transferred to hospitals in Europe or Asia."

Not everyone was thrilled about Burson's decision to go to Iraq.

"My wife, Barbara, is not real happy about this, but she has been a good sport about it," he admitted, explaining that in addition to the holidays he was missing their 50th wedding anniversary.

"This is like your high school football coach showing up on your doorstep 50 years later saying you're eligible to play one more game. Would you suit up? You know you would."


Piled High
 Piled High


A Georgia Tech alumnus who lampoons his graduate school experiences in an online comic strip has developed a cult following among graduate students around the world.

Jorge Cham, ME 97, author of "Piled Higher and Deeper," pokes fun at the miseries of postgraduate education — "adviser-student relations, procrastination, sleep deprivation and the endless search for free food."

First published in 1997 in the Stanford Daily, the comic strip examines the lives of four graduate students — Cecilia, Mike, Tajel and one who is unnamed.

"To alleviate some of the stress, I would write down funny things that happened to me or other grad students," Cham says. "That's why the main character doesn't have a name, because when you're in grad school you usually have to tell your adviser who you are four or five times before they remember. To them you're just another brain on a stick.

"Over the years, procrastination became a theme. What seems to stress grad students the most is the knowledge that there is always something you should be doing and that makes for some funny situations."

Cham says he had little experience in cartooning and no artistic training.

"One day I saw an ad in the Daily for a cartoonist and I decided to try it," he says. "I started drawing based on my own experiences but it soon became apparent that a strip just about me was pretty boring so I invented some other characters — composites of other students I had known."

The strip began to grow slowly in popularity around the Stanford campus then caught on through the Web site at other California schools.

In September, the phdcomics Web site recorded more than 2.4 million page views from more than 1,000 schools worldwide.

Cham, a native of Panama, earned a master's and doctorate from Stanford, also in mechanical engineering. When not drawing the strip, he is a postdoctoral instructor and researcher at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena studying brain-machine interface technology for neural prosthetics and "smart" neural recording devices with movable electrodes.

Cham says he never dreamed his cartoon would be so popular but he's unsure about its future.

"Anyone who does any kind of art eventually wants to have their work seen," he says. "In some ways I would like to see the strip syndicated and carried to a mainstream audience, but it's popular because it is specific to the grad school experience and that audience is limited."

©2006 Georgia Tech Alumni Association