By Margaret Loftus
BIOENGINEERING HAS BECOME ONE OF
THE FASTEST-GROWING MAJORS.
When the University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA) started
accepting applications last year for its brand-new bioengineering
undergraduate program, it knew there'd be lots of interest
but nothing like deluge of applications it received—some
2,000 in all—for 35 slots. Among those looking to get
in were 190 high school seniors with perfect GPA's and SAT
scores. "It's just like computer science in the
mid-80s," says Carlo Montemagno, chair of the new department.
Right now, many universities are intent on catching that
wave. From UCLA to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
(MIT), undergraduate and graduate bioengineering programs
are cropping up all over the country. And older, more established
programs, many of them under the rubric of "biomedical
engineering" like Johns Hopkins, Purdue, and Syracuse,
are revamping and expanding their offerings. (In theory, bioengineering
is a much broader field than biomedical engineering but the
terms are often used interchangeably). According to the Whitaker
Foundation, which supports research and education in biomedical
engineering, some 130 biomedical engineering programs exist
today, up from 42 in the early 1990s.
"Bioengineering is among the most popular and fastest-growing
undergraduate majors at top research universities nationwide,"
says Harvey Borovetz, chair of the bioengineering department
in the University of Pittsburgh's school of engineering.
About 2,500 of the roughly 400,000 engineering undergraduates
in the United States in 1979 majored in bioengineering. By
2002, the number of engineering students had basically stayed
the same, but the number doing bioengineering had soared to
How did bioengineering get to be such a hot ticket? "It's
drawing on two very fast-moving revolutions in microelectronics
and biology," says Frank Blanchard, director of communications
at the Whitaker Foundation. For example, now that the genome
has been mapped, biology has an overwhelming amount of information,
he says and "Somebody's got to figure out how
to put all the pieces of the puzzle together."
Where once bioengineering was considered the application
of engineering principles to biology, educators now say it's
a stand-alone discipline poised to create a whole new breed
of scientist. "We're creating a new kind of engineer,
someone, for example, who knows enough biology to collaborate
with a mechanical engineer and a biologist to find new ways
to grow bone," explains Linda Griffith, professor of
biological and mechanical engineering at MIT and chair of
the school's committee working to create an undergraduate
biological engineering program. Compared with traditional
disciplines like civil and electrical engineering, which UCLA's
Montemagno describes as being on the flat part of the growth
curve, "[bioengineering is] in a very steep part of
that curve, we're going to see advancements happen very
quickly and young people see that."
Not much is lost on this techno-savvy generation. Bororvetz
says Pitt routinely gets e-mails from 17-year-olds curious
about their bioengineering program. "Quite frankly,
the kids are asking for it," he says, "in many
ways they're driving it." Montemagno credits the
media and science fiction with planting the seed. "They
see what they think is possible and nobody is telling them
they can't do it." And many of these budding scientists
are young women. It's not at all unusual for a bioengineering
program to be split evenly between the sexes, a far cry from
other engineering disciplines where women make up just over
20 percent of graduates.
To be sure, bioengineering opens doors to people who in the
past may have not considered a career in engineering. "Engineers
for so many years have been focused on things like electronic
devices, chemical processes, buildings, and bridges. I think
we've neglected a large part of the population who has
a natural inclination for helping people," says William
Durgin, associate provost and vice president for research
at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, Mass., where
the Bioengineering Institute involves faculty, students, research
scientists, and post-docs in developing bio-engineered products.
"It's not the things that matter in engineering;
it's the way we think about things."
Indeed, many potential bioengineers may have made bee-lines
to medical school in the past. As a kid who spent a lot of
time in the hospital blood-bank lab where his father worked,
Timothy Maul knew he wanted to be in medicine. "I always
thought being a doctor was the only way to do that."
A high school chemistry teacher told him about bioengineering
and today he is a third-year post doc at Pitt working to develop
a tissue-engineered blood vessel. "I like the idea of
helping to push medicine forward or providing medicine at
a different level."
Kicking It Off
Sensing that the field was poised to explode back in 1991,
the Whitaker Foundation made an unprecedented decision for
a foundation of its size. "They saw this tremendous
opportunity to kick-start this field," Blanchard says.
Rather than continue to make annual grants of $12 million—the
foundation world-standard of 5 percent of the value of its
assets—it would "spend out" their $720 million
fortune over the next 15 years and close its doors come 2006.
The Whitaker Foundation used its millions to create 38 biomedical
engineering departments and make grants to dozens more. One
such grant recipient, Johns Hopkins, admitted a class two
years ago that they estimated would have 60 to 90 biomedical
engineering majors in it. Instead, 175 of the 300 engineering
majors opted to go bio—far too many for the department
to accommodate. Rather than compromise the university's tenet
that students should be allowed to find their intellectual
passion at Hopkins, the administration created three new bioengineering
concentrations—bimolecular engineering, biomechanics,
and biomaterials. All three are now just as competitive as
the traditional biomedical engineering major.
Like Hopkins, many programs, such as the Wallace H. Coulter
Department of Biomedical Engineering at the Georgia Institute
of Technology and Emory University in Atlanta, originally
developed from collaborations between engineering and medical
schools. Virginia Tech's college of engineering in Blacksburg,
Va., and the Wake Forest University School of Medicine in
Winston-Salem, N.C., decided to join forces after both schools
missed the boat on Whitaker funding. The program's acting
director and professor of mechanical engineering at Virginia
Tech, Elaine Scott, called the partnership, which officially
opened its doors last fall, a natural. "The medical
school staff members are the users who know what the critical
problems are." "Without their input," she
says, "what you think is a good idea may not be practical."
At the University of Pittsburgh, faculty members didn't
have to travel that far to find collaborators. The offices
of the engineering and medical school faculties were right
across the street from each other, fostering longtime relationships
among their denizens. "Many of these collaborators had
a desire to see bioengineering as a formal discipline,"
Borovetz says, "but introducing new university departments
is a daunting task." Eventually the school secured funding
from Whitaker, and along with Carnegie Mellon University Engineering
School, introduced their bioengineering department in 1998.
Today, the department's combined undergraduate and graduate
enrollment is 300.
Dan Debrah was a biology major at Pitt until he interned
with the artificial heart program there as a sophomore. "[Bioengineering]
seemed like a better fit for me, I liked the problem- solving
aspects of it." As a bioengineering graduate student,
Debrah still helps to care for patients supported by artificial
heart systems. He values the clinical experience because he
says, "you get to see what the technology is for."
Still other schools have decided to build their programs
from the ground up. In the past the bioengineering curriculum
was lots of engineering with little time leftover for biology.
Such an approach, Montemagno says, made it difficult for students
to see how one discipline relates to another. Many schools,
such as the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena,
MIT, and the Franklin W. Olin School of Engineering in Needham,
Mass., have created or are striving to create new integrative
bioengineering curricula. When Montemagno and other UCLA faculty
members set out to wipe the slate clean, they came up with
14 new courses. "The idea is to educate [students] so
they understand how it all works together," Montemagno
says. "We still teach them physics but in a way that's
relevant to biology."
Montemagno says the new approach will improve students'
intuition, allowing discoveries to happen more rapidly and
motivating them to work harder. The UCLA program is designed
to give students a broad background in the field since most
will head to graduate or professional school. Ultimately,
Montemagno sees them as renaissance thinkers. "They'll
essentially be able to straddle the interdisciplinary world
effortlessly. We think these students will end up being the
real leaders because they'll be able to understand what
everybody is doing."
Margaret Loftus is a freelance writer based in Wilmington,