PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo - NOVEMBER 2004 - VOLUME 14, NUMBER 3
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By Margaret Loftus


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 11,000.

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, N.C.


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