Vol. 4 No. 2 October 2005

BE Survey 

BME @ Madison

Letter to Editor

Afeyan Interview

Company Spotlight

Photo Gallery

Student Research

Printable Version

The BioTECH Quarterly

Biology and Engineering at the University of Wisconsin - Madison:
A Student’s Landscape

    A Bio" + "Engineering" Landscape @ MIT" feature was printed in the September 2004 issue of the BioTECH, and, in response to this coverage, several BMES chapters across the nation have responded with portrayals of the bioengineering landscape at their respective institutions.

    Here is the first of a mini-series on "Bio" + "Engineering" Landscape @ Other Schools: "Biology and Engineering at the University of Wisconsin - Madison: a Student's Landscape."

By Andrew L. Wentland, Student at UW-Madison

    UW-Madison’s major in biomedical engineering (BME) is one of the most sought after undergraduate degrees, not only in the college of engineering, but among all sciences. In freshman orientation, students are advised that only forty-five students are admitted into the program each year. The students not deterred by the warning still result in 250% of applications per student admitted. Why are so many students attracted to UW-Madison’s degree in biomedical engineering?

    Through a generous grant from the Whitaker Foundation, UW-Madison established an undergraduate BME program in 1999. The founding faculty members met with representatives from some of the biggest names in the medical industry, such as Medtronic and GE Medical Systems. These representatives told faculty members that, in their experience, graduates of biomedical engineering programs had solid understandings of biology and engineering principles, but rarely did those principles come together. Instead of hiring biomedical engineers, these companies hired mechanical and electrical engineers and trained them in biology—only what they needed to solve problems.

    As a result, graduates of biomedical engineering programs typically went to medical school and graduate school. Rarely could a graduate establish a career in the medical industry.

    When UW-Madison’s faculty began to form the BME curriculum, they included all of the foundational classes that an engineer would take—statics, dynamics, circuits—but also all of the foundational classes of a biologist—biology, physiology, and organic chemistry. Upon completing these numerous core classes, students would need to take the core classes of biomedical engineering, namely biomechanics, bioinstrumentation, and biomaterials. Each student would be allowed to focus in a certain field in biomedical engineering, taking four additional classes in categories like biomechanics, medical imaging, and ergonomics. These courses still provided a fairly broad background. How could the faculty adequately prepare students for medical school, graduate school, or a career in industry?

    The answer? Design. Through a mere 6% of the total number of credit hours in the undergraduate BME curriculum, every student would take six semesters of biomedical engineering design. Don’t be misled by the paucity of this percentage. With five of the six classes being a single credit hour and the sixth being three credit hours of capstone design, sophomores, juniors, and seniors work directly with medical doctors, nurses, graduate students, Ph.D.’s, and engineers from the medical industry. These clients provide projects in every imaginable category of biomedical engineering, from combining biomechanics and gastroenterology to biomaterials and surgery. Inherently, these classes are much more valuable than the number of credits they provide, including the chance to work in teams, to experience real world problems, to interact with medical professionals, to practice presentation and writing skills, and to work with proposals and funding.

    Biomedical engineering design lends itself to three years of rigorous training, with students challenged in advanced problems while learning how to design and becoming well qualified for careers in the medical industry. However, six semesters of design “was even better than envisioned, because students started learning how to learn and the projects started helping students define where they were going with their careers,” said Professor Robert G. Radwin, chair and founder of the Department of Biomedical Engineering. Design became “a new way to learn.” With these projects beginning in the undergraduate’s sophomore year, design influenced students to take courses suggestive of the projects they worked on, and as a result, the projects helped define students’ careers.

    An estimated 75% of students entering BME are pre-med. Most of the remaining students tend towards graduate school. But with all the interaction the design courses provide, many of these students change their minds. Some enjoy design to such a level that they apply for industry upon graduation. A few of the pre-med students, having worked with medical doctors in numerous fields through the design courses, decide that graduate school is right for them; and vice versa for the students intending to enter graduate school. By the time they graduate, only 25% of students are bound for medical school.

    These design classes are powerful learning tools, providing so much flexibility that students planning to attend medical school may work on projects in several different fields to understand the broad scope of medicine; students planning to attend graduate school may focus on projects that are research-oriented; and students intending to work in the medical industry may, for example, emphasize electrical engineering in their coursework and subsequently choose numerous projects involved in bioinstrumentation.

    The design courses help students use their engineering knowledge to design something of clinical relevance. “If students are interested in learning how an engineering approach can be used to understand something more fundamental about cells and tissues, a new certificate program may be just the ticket,” said Professor Naomi Chesler, professor of biomedical engineering and graduate of the HST Division of Harvard-MIT. Professor Chesler is helping to establish a Biology in Engineering certificate (UW-Madison’s equivalent to a minor) that will expose engineering students to the ways in which engineering has and can contribute to problems in biology. The certificate is not just for students majoring in BME, but for any student in the college of engineering.

    The certificate allows students to “learn more about biology and integrate that knowledge with their engineering training through a capstone seminar course,” said Chesler. The seminar course covers a broad spectrum of topics—what could be considered the scope of biological engineering at UW-Madison. These topics include rheology of DNA, nanoscale biosensors, tissue engineering, mechanical properties of arteries, gene therapy and drug delivery, and imaging technologies for cancer detection, in effect sampling the many research programs on campus that are involved with using biological principles in biological applications.

    One of the BME department’s own biological engineers is William Murphy, whose work focuses on developing materials to instruct stem cells. Murphy said, “Many of the most intriguing problems in biology exist in medicine. In many cases, biological engineers will end up doing the same thing as biomedical engineers,” in that as biological engineering becomes more advanced, basic research, such as Murphy’s, will be directly applicable to clinical problems. Perhaps as tissue engineering advances, biologics and clinical applications will become the predominant foci of the field.

    Biomedical engineering at UW-Madison encompasses all aspects of biology and engineering, whether that is engineering for direct medical application, or fundamental biological research, such as Murphy’s. From a student’s perspective, course work emphasizes the former—clinical relevance in mind. Nevertheless, the department of biomedical engineering offers a program named Honors in Research, which allows any undergraduate student in the department to work on biomedical/biological research for a minimum of three semesters. This research can be done with any professor in biomedical engineering or any professor associated with the department. Those professors cross-listed in the department range from radiology, oncology, rehabilitation medicine, physiology, and all of the departments in the college of engineering. Therefore, a student in BME not only works on clinical problems in the design courses, but can also work in biological research.

    Biomedical engineering is the epicenter of biology and engineering at UW-Madison. UW-Madison focuses on direct medical applications, which are epitomized in biomedical engineering design, to help foster a career path for undergraduates. BME students are empowered to explore and determine their involvement in medicine, biology, and engineering, whether that is going to medical school, graduate school, or industry.

Andrew Wentland is a senior in biomedical engineering at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. He plans to pursue a MD/PhD program in the hopes of emphasizing MRI medical physics in his PhD work.

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