Matthew Walker III, gifted biomedical design professor and mentor, has died

studio photograph of Matthew Walker III
Matthew Walker III (Vanderbilt University)

Matthew Walker III, who developed and taught Vanderbilt University’s innovative biomedical engineering design curriculum, died unexpectedly on April 24. He was 56 years old.

Walker joined the faculty in 2011 and held dual appointments as professor of the practice of biomedical engineering in the School of Engineering and professor of radiology and radiological sciences in the School of Medicine. He also was associate director of the Medical Innovators Development Program.

“One of Matthew’s greatest gifts was his love of mentoring and teaching, especially evident in his dedication as adviser to students engaged in biomedical engineering design projects,” said Philippe Fauchet, Bruce and Bridgitt Evans Dean of Engineering. “He brought to the classroom years of corporate experience in the biotech industry that enriched his students’ learning. Matthew encouraged students to consider their work more than a class project—to think about taking it to market to solve real-world problems.”

Walker’s novel curriculum leveraged connections among the School of Engineering, the medical school and the biotechnology community. He served as the biomedical engineering department’s immersion coordinator, guiding students through their immersion plans and capstone project experiences.

“Dr. Walker cared deeply about his students, and his innovations made senior design and Design Day into something great. To lose him during his favorite week of the year is heartbreaking,” said Michael King, J. Lawrence Wilson Professor of Engineering and chair of the biomedical engineering department. “A decade of Vanderbilt graduates benefitted from the knowledge and experience he brought from his time in the pharmaceutical industry. Matthew was a beloved educator and colleague, and we already miss his smooth baritone voice and gregarious wit.”

Walker, who was born in Newark, New Jersey, on Nov. 10, 1964, to Matthew Walker Jr. and Ramona Bard, earned a bachelor of science from the University of Tennessee in 1987. He was a mechanical/biomedical engineer with NASA in Houston prior to earning his doctorate in cardiovascular biophysics and pharmacology from Tulane University School of Medicine in 2003.

Walker completed postdoctoral training in the Harvard–M.I.T. Division of Health Sciences and Technology. He then spent eight years at Merck Research Laboratories, where he led a team of pharmacology and biomarker development imaging specialists in cardiovascular, diabetes, cancer and obesity-related drug discovery efforts, resulting in many medicine-related patents. These included the co-development of the drugs Vytorin, Januvia and Candesarten. While at Merck, he also led the novel technologies adoption team. In addition, he was the founder of the Association of Underrepresented Minority Fellows.

“Matthew had an amazing career at Merck, but we are fortunate that he was ready to come home to Nashville—where his family is deeply rooted—and share with our students the many lessons he had learned about the design process,” said Dr. André Churchwell, vice chancellor for equity, diversity and inclusion and chief diversity officer. Churchwell had been friends with Walker since the late 1980s, when Walker considered going to Emory University Medical School, where Churchwell was on the faculty. “Matthew opted instead for a Ph.D. to focus on biomedical research, and he was a genius at turning ideas into a formal design process—ultimately solving complex challenges in health care. This is a tremendous loss for Vanderbilt.”

Walker was an exemplary role model for many of his students. In 2018, he moderated part of a Meharry–Vanderbilt Alliance summit for Black men interested in health professions, where he noted the urgent need for more diversity in medical school populations.

In 2020, Walker was named a fellow of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering for “the development of an innovative biotechnology design curriculum across departments within engineering, medicine, and the biomedical device industry.

Walker had served on the board of the Matthew Walker Comprehensive Health Center. The center is named for his grandfather, Dr. Matthew Walker Sr., a surgeon who worked to bring affordable health care to marginalized populations.

Walker is survived by his wife, Anna Walker, son, Matthew Walker IV, sister, Nicole Walker, and mother, Ramona Bard.

A public viewing is scheduled May 4 from 3 to 5 p.m. at Lewis & Wright Funeral Directors. The  celebration of life for Walker will be May 5 at 11 a.m. at Schrader Lane Church of Christ. Interment will be at  Historic Greenwood Cemetery Main.