Rare proximity of engineering and medicine at UVM gives rise to new major, new horizons for university

Stretching between Votey Hall, home to the University of Vermont’s College of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences, and the Larner College of Medicine’s Medical Education Center is a jumble of chain link fences, construction equipment and hulking, partially built structures – ground zero of an ambitious construction program, about half done, being undertaken by the university and its teaching hospital, the UVM Medical Center.

But even the roundabout walkway between the buildings that gives construction hazards a wide berth can be traversed in a little under four-and-a-half minutes.

Both the nearness of the buildings and the impediments that prevent an even quicker passage between them are significant—foundational elements of an ongoing commitment the university is making to what may be the great intellectual enterprise of our time: using the quantitative methods of mathematics, computer science and engineering to understand biological systems and solve deeply complex biomedical problems.

In a sign of this commitment, the university this fall unveiled a new undergraduate major in biomedical engineering three years in the making. It joins a Ph.D. in bioengineering launched in 2010 and previews a master’s in the discipline the university will put in place within two years.

UVM’s emergent trio of biomedical engineering degree programs has top tier potential, says the university’s provost, David Rosowsky.

In his previous job as dean of the School of Engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Rosowsky presided over one of the nation’s leading biomedical engineering departments.

As he was eyeing UVM from afar and after he arrived in 2013, Rosowsky was 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.

He was also struck by something that was missing at RPI and, to an extent, limited it: the fact that “our College of Medicine”—RPI has neither a medical school nor a clinical translational research facility like UVM Medical Center—“sits right on our campus, co-located with the rest of the university,” he says.

The combination of faculty talent and interest and the nearness of the two colleges presented “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,” he says.

Two years after Rosowsky arrived, as part of a strategic plan developed by the university’s president, Tom Sullivan, UVM began construction on a new $104 million STEM facility—one of the impediments that necessitates the circuitous path from Votey to the med school. Across the way, the UVM Medical Center recently broke ground on another—a new patient care facility that will bring engineering and medicine even closer.

The investment in the new STEM facility doesn’t overlook biomedical engineering. A large, state-of-the-art biomedical engineering teaching and research lab will be housed in Votey Hall, much of which will be gutted and rebuilt as part of the STEM project.

Consequential Collisions

The proximity of engineering and medicine at UVM is rare in American higher education. At the vast majority of the 50 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).

The location of the schools being a “stone’s throw from one another creates unique synergy,” says Luis Garcia, dean of the College of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences.

Rachael Oldinski, a rising faculty star in biomedical engineering in the college, is a case in point. Oldinski and a group of faculty at the 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 to catch a seminar Oldinski was teaching and 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, and the lung Band-Aid was born. It happened only because of the people and the location,” Oldinski says.

Explosive Growth

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, a “much faster than average” rate of growth according to the bureau. In 2015 the median income of biomedical engineers was of $86,220.

That rosy projection rings true for alum Dan Nardi (B.S. in mathematics, 2002/M.S. in computer science, 2004), vice president for operations at Livongo, a Chicago-based chronic disease management company, and a member of the CEMS advisory board who was an early advocate of 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 a lot of entrepreneurs want to have a background like this because there’s so many applications.”

UVM biomedical engineering graduates would be welcomed by “a whole new wave of startups,” he says.

More Than Bricks and Mortar

The university’s investment in biomedical engineering extends beyond the bricks and mortar of the new biomedical lab and the STEM facility of which it is part. According to Garcia, the College of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences brought on a new instructor in the discipline in August and plans a tenure track “cluster hire”—two biomechanical engineering faculty recruited simultaneously, one with a concentration in electrical engineering and one in mechanical—this academic year.

The university is also investing in a program that will award “substantial seed grants,” according to Rosowsky, to teams of faculty from engineering and medicine who jointly submit research proposals.

The grant program is a way of further ramping up research partnerships between colleagues in UVM’s engineering and medical colleges, a group that has often worked together in the past whose tradition of collaboration led to the bioengineering Ph.D.

The new undergraduate program should promote even more connection, Garcia says. Faculty from the two schools will be entwined, with engineering faculty primarily teaching the first three years, medical school faculty offering special topics courses senior year, and much interplay all four years. “You’re going to be working together teaching, and working together in developing some of the programs,” he says. “We see a clear spillover into doing more research together.”

Wanted: Gender Balance

The attractiveness of the new undergraduate program and the popularity of the major across higher ed should help the College of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences 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 Garcia. “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.

A larger female enrollment would, in turn, “attract other underrepresented categories,” says Frolik. “All the students would be taking the same first and second year classes, so we’ll have a much more diverse population.” 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.”

Oldinski 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 example of Kiki Cunningham, a sophomore mechanical engineering major from Old Chatham, N.Y., who’s switching to biomedical engineering now that the major is available, suggests that those reasons may be intertwined.

While in high school at Emma Willard in Troy, Cunningham got a tour of the General Electric facility in nearby Schenectady and was inspired by a young woman there, who told her about a project she was working on to make synthetic skin for burn victims. Cunningham was drawn to the person but also 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 being a bioengineer than an M.D.”

Good to Great

UVM’s expansion of its biomedical engineering program is a clear advance for undergraduate education at the university; the only surprise is that it didn’t come earlier. “UVM has everything you’d want for the degree,” Oldinski says. “The students 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 and Mathematical Sciences, the Material Science program in the College of Arts and Sciences, the College of Nursing and Health Science.”

And the educational experience is delivered—in both engineering and medicine (as well as in the university as a whole)—via a teacher-scholar model emphasizing small classes taught by faculty with expertise in research and teaching.

As the undergraduate enrollment grows and feeds the soon-to-come-online master’s program, as both programs serve as a pipeline to the doctoral program, and as all student levels swell a research program already growing due to increased collaboration between next-door-neighbor faculty in engineering and medicine, it’s hard not to get carried away by biomedical engineering’s potential at UVM. “This is a great opportunity for the university,” says Rosowsky. “It’s also a great fit for the university.”

Jeffrey R. Wakefield