VOLUME 11, NO. 2 SEPTEMBER 1997
In the spring of 1996, in response to increasing student interest in medicine, biomedical research and medical technology, the WPI faculty approved the creation of a new undergraduate degree program in biomedical engineering. Thanks to a three-year, $1 million Special Opportunity Award in Biomedical Engineering from the Whitaker Foundation, the new program is getting off to a fast start, notes Robert A. Peura, head of the Biomedical Engineering Department.
"Normally, it takes several years to build a fully functioning academic program, especially at a small university like WPI," Peura says. "But the Whitaker Foundation has enabled us to jump-start that process and speed the implementation of this new major."
The Whitaker Foundation is a private, nonprofit foundation supporting research and education in the field of biomedical engineering. The foundation was established in 1975 upon the death of Uncas A. Whitaker, founder and CEO of AMP Incorporated, the world's largest maker of electrical connectors and connecting devices. An inventor, engineer and philanthropist, Whitaker encouraged and supported collaborative medical research involving engineers, scientists and physicians.
In the early 1990s, in keeping with Whitaker's interest in biomedical engineering and his wish that the foundation have a finite lifespan, the organization's governing board voted to terminate the foundation's operations in the year 2006 and to expend all of its endowment, principal and earnings during the coming decade.
"What the Whitaker Foundation is doing is extraordinary," says Denise Rodino, executive director of corporate and foundation relations at WPI. "By expending all its assets in this short time span, the foundation will have a rapid and critical impact on the field of biomedical engineering. This is certainly the case at WPI. Past Whitaker Foundation grants have played a significant role in the faculty and program development in our young Biomedical Engineering Department. This new grant will effectively move the department from a graduate program to a fully staffed undergraduate program, and will bring new students and new corporate ties to the university. We are grateful that the foundation has chosen to invest its assets in growing our program."
The history of biomedical engineering at WPI extends back more than 30 years. The Biomedical Engineering Program traces its origins to the early 1960s and a master's degree program offered jointly by the WPI Electrical Engineering Department and the Clark University Biology Department. Later, WPI added a Ph.D. program in biomedical engineering and offered undergraduates the opportunity to develop a biomedical engineering specialty as part of major programs in chemical, electrical and mechanical engineering. The Biomedical Engineering Program became a formal academic department in 1988.
"The recent growth in the biomedical engineering industry has created a need for engineers with a strong grounding in this interdisciplinary field, which led the department to propose the creation of the undergraduate degree program," Peura says. "Engineers traditionally have looked for career opportunities in areas like defense, computers and high-tech electronics. Now we are seeing a growing segment of young engineers-nearly half of whom are women-who want to work in a field like biomedical engineering that has direct, tangible benefits to people. It's a national phenomenon. Biomedical engineering is now among the three largest engineering programs at a number of top engineering schools, including Duke, Case Western Reserve, Vanderbilt, RPI, Tulane and Boston University. The undergraduate program funded by the Whitaker grant will enable WPI to attract and enroll promising students who seek to major in the field-an entirely new cadre of applicants to the university."
The field of biomedical engineering involves the application of engineering to problems in biology and medicine. "Medical devices you find in hospitals, clinics, emergency rooms, ambulances and other clinical environments are the product of biomedical engineering," Peura says. "These include prosthetic joints and heart valves, blood-gas and heart-rate monitors, CT scanners, MRI systems, artificial skin, muscle and cartilage, and therapeutic and rehabilitative devices."
WPI's new bachelor's degree program in biomedical engineering "flips our old program around," Peura says. "Previously, students majoring in chemical, electrical or mechanical engineering could take a concentration in biomedical engineering. Now, biomedical engineering majors pursue an emphasis in biochemical, bioelectric or biomechanical engineering to acquire an in-depth knowledge in one of those areas. The old system produced meticulously trained engineers who looked at medical problems from a chemical, electrical or mechanical perspective. The new program produces meticulously trained engineers who look at medical problems from a biomedical perspective. This is important, because of all the systems an engineer may look at, the human body is the most challenging."
The Whitaker Foundation award will enable WPI to speed the implementation of the major program and to offer students a fully developed biomedical engineering program from the start. The first installment of the award will fund two new tenure-track faculty members who will develop new undergraduate courses. It will also pay for the renovation of lab space and the purchase of new equipment for the undergraduate program. In addition, the funds are being used to renovate existing lab facilities for undergraduate BME use, and to secure modern equipment for these labs.
According to Rodino, "The Whitaker award brings tangible and intangible benefits to the university. First, it will build a competitive biomedical engineering program requiring little initial investment by the university. (In fact, under the terms of the grant, the university's commitment grows over the lifespan of the grant as new enrollments-and new sources of institutional revenue-grow.) Second, and just as important, a Whitaker Foundation grant provides major opportunities for image building and public relations; simply by being chosen for this award, WPI has moved into the ranks of programs of national merit."
"The new program is already attracting students to WPI who might not otherwise have chosen to attend the university," Peura says. "So the award will benefit the university as a whole. In addition, the field of biomedical sciences and engineering will be elevated significantly by the critical mass of faculty and resources we're establishing, by the quality of the students we will be educating, and by the new relationships we will be building with industry and with other educational and research institutions as the program moves forward."
Students in the new undergraduate program are already benefiting from a number of partnerships established by the Biomedical Engineering Department. These include a number of centers where students may complete their major qualifying projects in biomedical engineering with physicians and biomedical researchers. The sites include the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, the Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine in Grafton, Mass., and a number of medical device companies in central New England.
In its application to the Whitaker Foundation, the Biomedical Engineering Department estimated that the new undergraduate program would attract 40 students its first year and enroll 130 students after four years. In fact, this fall 44 first-year students enrolled as biomedical engineering majors, a 60 percent increase over the number of freshmen who signed up for a biomedical engineering concentration a year ago. As the program continues to grow in size and reputation, its enrollment should exceed the "conservative figures" in the proposal, Peura says.
"I would like this program to be rated among the top 10 undergraduate biomedical engineering programs in the nation within the next five to 10 years," he says. "That's an ambitious goal, but I think we can achieve it. With the right faculty, the support of the administration, continued growth and some hard work, we have a chance of getting there. This award from the Whitaker Foundation will go a long way toward making that dream a reality."
Photo caption: Robert A. Peura, head of WPI's Biomedical Engineering Department works with graduate student George Gumbrell (foreground).
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