University of Vermont

Vermont Quarterly

Engineering Meets Medicine

Student Kiki Cunningham in Professor Rachael Oldinski's lab

‘Engineers are people with hammers looking for nails. And in medicine, we’ve got a lot of nails.’

By Jeffrey Wakefield
Photograph by David Seaver

The points where engineering meets medicine are ripe with promise. 

Think cardiac pacemakers, smart prosthetics, radiation therapy, laser surgery. At UVM, where the engineers at Votey Hall and white-coated physicians and research scientists of the Larner College of Medicine share the same small corner of campus, simple proximity helps foster collaboration. Coupled with new degree programs and major investment in facilities and faculty,  the university is poised to dig deep in this vital twenty-first-century field. 

For a case study in current success and future potential, consider Rachael Oldinski, a rising faculty star in biomedical engineering in the College of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences.

Oldinski and a group of faculty at the Larner College of Medicine’s Vermont Lung Center are hard at work on an ingenious invention she calls a “lung Band-Aid”—a patch of organic matter derived from seaweed that can be used to repair the hole of a collapsed lung and “potentially save a life,” she says.

But if a post-doctoral student at the med school, Darcy Wagner, hadn’t wandered over to Votey Hall to catch a seminar Oldinski was teaching, then talk with her afterwards about a challenge she and her advisor, Dr. Dan Weiss, a pulmonary specialist at the Lung Center, were facing, the invention may never have been conceived.

“She came to my seminar and said, ‘This is what we’re having trouble doing,’ and I said, ‘Well, I have something that will probably solve your problem,’” Oldinski says. “And then she came back to me and said, ‘You know I think your solution would actually be good for something else.’”

One thing led to another and to another (if you’ll allow us a wee simplification of the scientific process), and the lung Band-Aid was born. 

“It happened only because of the people and the location,” Oldinski says. 

People and location. David Rosowsky sensed the strength in this combination even as he interviewed for the UVM provost position in 2013.  In his previous job, dean of the School of Engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Rosowsky presided over one of the nation’s leading biomedical engineering departments.

After joining UVM in the #2 administrative spot, Rosowsky was further impressed by the talent of the faculty in both the engineering college and the university’s highly ranked medical school—and by how many faculty in both academic units had educational backgrounds and active research programs in biomedical engineering.

 “There was an obvious opportunity to invest in an area that was very compelling to students, very compelling to federal agencies supporting research, and very attractive to employers,” Rosowsky says. “It’s also a great fit for the university.”

A Ph.D. program in bioengineering, launched in 2010, was joined by a new undergraduate major in biomedical engineering during the 2016-17 academic year. A master’s degree track in the discipline will follow within two years. 

The degree programs and faculty research are undergirded by the impressive bricks-and-mortar investment in the STEM complex, part of President Tom Sullivan’s 2013 Strategic Action Plan. Phase one of the project, the new Discovery Building, opened adjacent to Votey Hall this spring. Following the razing of the Cook Building, construction on the Innovation Building will begin next door.  A state-of-the-art biomedical engineering teaching and research lab will be housed in Votey, much of which will be gutted and rebuilt as part of the STEM project. 

The proximity of engineering and medicine at UVM is rare in American higher education. At the vast majority of the fifty universities that have both accredited biomedical engineering programs and medical colleges, the two units are located across town from one another (think Tufts in Medford and Tufts Medical School in Boston’s Chinatown) or even across the state (Cornell in Ithaca and Weill Cornell Medicine in Manhattan, for example).  

 

Biomedical engineering as a field is experiencing explosive growth, says Jason Bates, a biomedical engineer and professor of pulmonary medicine in the Larner College of Medicine, who helped launch the bioengineering Ph.D. as interim director of the School of Engineering, a role he played from 2010 to 2014. Bates and Jeff Frolik, professor of electrical engineering in the College of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences, are co-directors of the new undergraduate program. 

The growth is being driven along two tracks, says Bates.  “There’s the technology involved in healthcare delivery,” he says, which grows exponentially every year and includes everything from smart prosthetics to diagnostic tools like CAT scanners to the safe and standardized manufacture of new pharmaceuticals.   

“Then there’s the technology involved in making fundamental investigations into biology as a biomedical system,” he says. “Medicine and biology have developed to the point where you just can’t get away from the need for serious quantitative methodology in much of it. Engineers are people with hammers looking for nails. And in medicine, we’ve got a lot of nails.”  

All that growth means better healthcare outcomes for patients and a burgeoning job market for biomedical engineers.  

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 23 percent increase in the number of biomedical engineering jobs between 2014 and 2024. In 2015 the median income of biomedical engineers was $86,220. 

That rosy projection rings true for alumnus Dan Nardi, who earned his bachelor’s in mathematics in 2002 and master’s in computer science two years later.  Today, he’s vice president for operations at Livongo, a Chicago-based chronic disease management company, and stays involved with UVM as a member of the CEMS advisory board.  Nardi was an early, enthusiastic advocate for the new undergraduate degree.

“Being out in Silicon Valley a lot and just picking up as much as I can on all the blogs, I certainly think there is more and more demand,” he says.  Nardi also mentors healthcare startups in the Chicago area and notes that future biomedical engineering graduates can anticipate being welcomed by fresh waves of start-ups where their skills and versatility will make them ideal hires.  

The attractiveness of the new undergraduate program and the popularity of the major across higher ed should help the College of Engineering and Mathematics continue its strong enrollment growth, a strategic goal of the university and the state of Vermont. The unit has more than doubled its enrollment in the last decade. 

It will also help with another challenge facing UVM and universities everywhere: tipping the scale toward gender balance in the male-dominated field of engineering. 

“Biomedical engineering nationwide is about 40 percent female,” says Luis Garcia, dean of the College of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences. “We’re confident our program will get to that level,” which should boost overall engineering enrollment well above its current ratio of 21 percent female to male, a figure higher than the national average for engineering schools but not where the college wants to be. 

Why more women are attracted to biomedical engineering is a complicated question. Bates and others guess that it’s “because of the more immediate social implications of being able to directly help people.”

Oldinksi says role modeling plays a large part. 

“Where did a lot of women start to become comfortable” within engineering? she asks. “I think biomedical engineering was one place. And as soon as you have one biomedical engineering professor, there’s your pipeline of female students.”

The path of Kiki Cunningham, a junior in biomedical engineering who started at UVM in mechanical engineering, suggests that those reasons may be intertwined. 

While in high school at Emma Willard in Troy, New York, Cunningham took a tour of the
General Electric facility in nearby Schenectady and talked with a young woman there who told her about a project she was working on to make synthetic skin for burn victims. Cunningham was inspired by the role model and drawn to the field’s ability to make a human impact. 

“Originally I wanted to go into internal medicine to help people,” she says. “After that presentation and after doing more research, I saw more ways I could help people as a bioengineer than as an M.D.” 

From Rachael Oldinski’s perspective, students like Cunningham and her fellow majors in the new degree program are in a classic right place, right time circumstance. “They  have the ability to get into the classroom, to go over to the hospital, to volunteer, to work with faculty in the College of Medicine and the College of Engineering, the Material Science program in the College of Arts and Sciences, the College of Nursing and Health Sciences,” she says. “UVM has everything you’d want for the degree.”

A version of this article originally appeared in Summit, a publication of UVM’s College of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences.


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