The BioTECH Quarterly
BME at the University of Virginia
By Ankit D. Tejani and Shadi Alikhani, both University of VA
With over 200 undergraduate students and almost 100 graduate students, the University of Virginia Department of Biomedical Engineering is rapidly expanding. We have 18 primary faculty and equal amount of adjunct professors in associated departments, covering the broad spectrum of biomedical engineering. Our undergraduate and graduate degree programs are consistently the most highly sought after in the engineering school, primarily due to this wide range of training opportunity. Our core faculty members and their laboratories conduct research not only in the traditional disciplines of bioengineering, investigating the cardiovascular and neurological systems as well as cellular and molecular signaling pathways, but also in the burgeoning fields of tissue engineering, medical imaging, and computational systems biology. Our BME program philosophy is to “Explore, Discover, Invent,” and we encourage this process in our students, undergraduate and graduate, and our faculty.
Our undergraduate program had offered a minor for numerous years and just recently started a Bachelor of Science program in 2003. Virginia’s BME department not only trains students to become exceptional scientists and productive engineers, but also prepares them to become adept leaders and entrepreneurs of the 21stcentury. After completing a structured curriculum in traditional engineering, students branch out into the departmental classes in their second year of study. It is at this time that our students begin attending courses in mammalian physiology, cellular and molecular engineering, bioinstrumentation, biotransport, and biomechanics. These courses provide a firm foundation in biomedical engineering, but the cornerstone of our undergraduate program is the eight-credit Integrated Design and Experimental Analysis (IDEAS) lab course.
A year-long core requirement, IDEAS lab offers essential tools, skills, and experiences that students will use in their careers as researchers and engineers. Through the first semester of this course, undergraduates acquire skills in basic labwork fundamental to BME, such as cell culture, protein electrophoresis, PCR, and florescence imaging. Also of importance is the second semester, during which the design portion of the course is highlighted. It is at this time that signal and image processing is emphasized and groups of students are expected to propose and experimentally carry out a final project.
Our undergraduate curriculum concludes with the BME Capstone Design experience and a senior thesis project, in which students, in an individual or team-based approach, are expected to select, formulate, and design a solution to a relevant biomedical problem. Most projects result in an experimentally-tested device and involve using many of the conceptual skills and design experience obtained in the IDEAS lab. Some projects are sponsored by biotech and pharma companies that have partnered with our department, and others are supervised by faculty members either within our department or within the other engineering departments.
This course sequence guides students to incorporate concepts and skills learned in earlier engineering and BME courses to design methods and solve problems relevant to the biomedical sciences. We are able to combine practical experience with a strong academic preparation to prepare our undergraduate students for diverse careers.
Our department also offers a summer Industrial Internship Program, which creates educational opportunities and partnerships between undergraduate students and biotech companies, partnerships that often result in future post-graduation offers for the students. For ten weeks during the summer, the IIP allows students to work at corporate sites where they obtain valuable experience. Corporate partners benefit not only from students’ leadership abilities and current knowledge of cutting-edge technologies but also by identifying exceptional students and potential future employees. Our department’s internship program has placed 66 student interns since its inception in 2000. Also valuable to students is the experience of presenting their summer projects in an annual poster session held during the fall semester immediately following their summer internship. Our undergraduates appreciate the opportunity to share their work with others in the department, and the poster session fosters networking and collaborations within individual projects or jointly with an ongoing research lab in the department.
The graduate program in BME has nearly doubled in enrollment over the past two years, and we continue to attract students from the top ranked undergraduate departments across the country. Our current student body consists of graduates of BME programs at Johns Hopkins, UCSD, Duke, Penn, Georgia Tech, and many more. Graduate students find a wealth of opportunity at UVa, both within their laboratory and through numerous collaborations with faculty members in other departments and private sponsors from the biotech industry. Many graduate students have worked with pharmaceutical companies or have assisted in the startup of successful biotech firms in the central and northern Virginia areas. Indeed, there are three dozen BME companies within 90 minutes of our campus, 15 of which are within the city of Charlottesville. One of our newest faculty members was named to the 2004 class of the TR100, showcasing this focus on innovation and invention shared by our department.
The graduate curriculum, which served as the basis of the undergraduate program, is also firmly grounded in traditional science and engineering. Unlike some other BME programs, we take a tandem approach to graduate education, allowing first year graduate students to rotate through labs and begin preliminary research while simultaneously completing coursework. The first year of courses focuses on engineering physiology and bioinstrumentation at its core, and offers great flexibility for students to take courses attuned to their research focus, such as genetic engineering or medical imaging. Graduate students complete at least 36 non-research credit hours of coursework by the end of their third year. By this point, a thesis project has also materialized and preliminary results have been obtained. Students generally complete the majority of the thesis work in their third and fourth years, and defend their final dissertation at the end of the fifth year. Areas of emphasis are cardiovascular engineering, reparative medicine, computational systems bioengineering, musculoskeletal engineering, medical imaging, and bionanotechnology.
Through our partnership with the UVa School of Medicine and the Cardiovascular Research Center, with which we share a building, our graduate students are able to experience both the bench and bedside elements of biomedical engineering firsthand. This also opens the doors to a multitude of funding opportunities through both university sponsored and federally funded grants, from which our students have drawn great benefit. Graduate students at UVa also benefit directly from the funding received through NIH Training Grants and Whitaker Foundation departmental grants. Their $550,000 average annual research funding places our faculty members in the top handful of programs nationwide. It is through these sources, among others, that our students benefit from having the latest imaging technologies and computational resources at their fingertips. With the culmination of new funds available through Whitaker, our department is extremely honored to be granted a Translational Research Partnership Award through the recently initiated Wallace H. Coulter Foundation. This funding will further encourage collaboration between our students and professors and their counterparts in the school of medicine.
As the biomedical engineering focus at UVa nears its fortieth year, we look forward to further educating the students that will be the future leaders in our field. Both our undergraduate and graduate divisions continue to grow, and we are consistently hiring new faculty members to strengthen both the traditional disciplines within our department as well as emerging research areas. Our program philosophy is “Explore, Discover, Invent.” We welcome students well trained at M.I.T. to gain the independence to define their own future career path in our department. Personal initiative by graduate students is one of our highly sought after traits in applicants.
Engineering Society of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. All
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