BME celebrates 20 years
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(The Department of Biomedical Engineering celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. In honor of this milestone, we are highlighting the BME department in this conversation between Diane Dalecki, the current chair of the department and the Kevin J. Parker Distinguished Professor in Biomedical Engineering, and Dean Wendi Heinzelman of the Hajim School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.
Dalecki is a “three-time” University of Rochester alumna with a BS in chemical engineering and a masters and a doctorate in electrical engineering. She was also one of the BME department’s first faculty. She shares her wealth of knowledge about the department’s history, accomplishments, and a vision for the future in this conversation. You can learn more about UR BME’s mission here, and check out the latest issue of the UR BME Magazine to see recent advances in the department and achievements of BME students, faculty, and staff.)
MUCH TO BE PROUD OF . . .
Wendi: Thanks Diane for joining me to talk about the history and accomplishments of our youngest but also one of our most successful departments.
Diane: Thank you, Wendi. It is a pleasure to take this opportunity at our 20-year milestone to reflect on how much the department has grown and accomplished. We started as an interdisciplinary degree program in biomedical engineering in 1997, and graduated our first class in 1999—all of four students! The Department of Biomedical Engineering was then formally created in 2000. Since then, our enrollment has grown to nearly 400 undergraduate and graduate students, half of whom are women. Our students benefit from our department’s education and research excellence, including our senior design experience, a unique medical device design master’s program, access to world-class research laboratories on the River Campus and the Medical Center, and an environment that encourages student participation in research, innovation, entrepreneurship, and community engagement.
As a result, our graduates are successful across a broad range of professions, pursuing careers in medical device and biotechnology industries, health care and medicine, in law, at the Food and Drug Administration, in academia, at research foundations, the U.S. patent office, and in many other exciting professions, including entrepreneurship. We are enormously proud of our alumni and the many ways through which they remain engaged with our department.
Our faculty members are doing internationally recognized research in:
- advanced therapeutic biomaterials
- state-of-the-art biomedical imaging, particularly in biomedical optics and ultrasound, and new methods for imaging biological systems,
- biomechanics and mechanobiology approaches to improve treatments for disease or injuries,
- neuroengineering, particularly in collaboration with the DelMonte Institute,
- regenerative medicine to engineer tissue replacements and therapeutics
- and new advances in nanotechnology and microsystems as biosensors and clinical diagnostics.
Wendi: I think it is impressive that your department has achieved gender equity, not only in student enrollment but also among your faculty, given the continuing underrepresentation of women in STEM fields. What factors have contributed to that?
Diane: Right from the start, we had a strong representation of women on the faculty. Three of the first five faculty members affiliated with the department were women—Amy Lerner, Denise Hocking, and myself. And as we continued to grow, we remained committed to this equity. The presence of role models in the department has contributed to our success in bringing women students into our program who perhaps otherwise may never have become engineers.
Wendi: You also have a reputation as an unusually collegial department.
Diane: That’s something we all value and contribute to, and I think that’s why we have had success in bringing talented faculty, students, and staff to our department. For example, we mentor our junior faculty early, to help them build their research programs and learn the ropes of how to write grants, build course curricula, and interact with students.
The spirit of collegiality extends to our students. They have a really close esprit de corps. Our faculty are excited to have undergraduate students as teaching assistants (TAs) in their courses and laboratories. The TAs are so eager to help their younger classmates and regard it as a badge of honor to mentor the first-year students and sophomores. Collegiality is an underlying flavor of the department that is really special to all of us.
AT THE BEGINNING . . .
Wendi: You mentioned that biomedical engineering began as a program in 1997, before the department was created three years later. Many people may not realize this, but the department is actually part of two different institutions at our University.
Diane: From the very start, the department was intentionally designed to span both the Medical Center and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, with financial and administrative ties to both. There aren’t very many universities that have a world class engineering school, literally right across the street from a world class medical center. It’s an enormous strength for our faculty and our students. It opens up so many additional research laboratories, collaborations, classes, seminars, workshops, and even opportunities for our students to shadow physicians and clinicians. As an example, this is especially helpful for students in our medical device design master’s program in our Center for Medical Technology and Innovation (CMTI). They begin their training through clinical immersions in the operating rooms to learn firsthand the needs of clinicians – but also the constraints of an operating room– that must be considered in medical device design.
It is also important to recognize the strong early support in forming our department that we had from our engineering deans Duncan Moore and Kevin Parker, and their counterpart, Lowell Goldsmith at the Medical Center, as well as the continued support of Dean Wendi Heinzelman and URMC CEO and Dean Mark Taubman.
Wendi: How many faculty members were affiliated with or working with the BME program when it first started?
Diane: Rick Waugh, a professor of pharmacology and physiology at the time, was our director when we were a BME program. He then became the founding department chair and led the department through many exciting years of growth, development, and success. Amy Lerner was our first faculty member, hired with an appointment in mechanical engineering, followed by Denise Hocking who as hired with pharmacology and physiology. And then within a short time each other, Scott Seidman and I were hired. My appointment was in electrical engineering, and Scott’s was in neurobiology and anatomy.
Wendi: That must have been a bit scary, leaving established departments and jumping into what was then still a relatively new realm of biomedical engineering.
Diane: But it was also tremendously exciting. Although my academic degrees were in chemical engineering (B.S.) and electrical engineering (M.S., Ph.D.), my interests and passions were always focused on biomedical engineering applications. Shortly after I finished my doctorate, there was talk about starting a biomedical engineering program and that was like candy to my eye. There was no way I could resist being part of a new biomedical engineering program at the University.
Granted we were doing things we would never expect of an assistant professor today—writing curricula and obtaining ABET accreditation, but I would not have traded it for a minute. And I think if you were to ask Amy, Denise, and Scott or any of the other faculty who started while we were a program, or soon after becoming a department, you would get the same answer. Yes, it was different, but we wouldn’t trade it for a minute.
GROWING A DEPARTMENT, BUILDING A HOME
Diane: Even after we became a department in 2000, we continued to rely on help from other departments. For example, a key group of more senior faculty from other departments helped shepherd our young department. At the risk of leaving anyone out, this included Ingrid Sarelius of pharmacology and physiology; Kevin Parker, dean of engineering and professor of electrical engineering; Sheryl Gracewski and Renato Perucchio of mechanical engineering; Duncan Moore of Optics; Gary Paige of neurobiology and anatomy; Jack Mottley of electrical engineering, and many more from the engineering and medical schools.
Two of our staff members were especially critical. Dottie Welch was our hero as our first undergraduate coordinator, and now there’s an award named after her because she set the bar for always being there for her students.
Donna Porcelli had previously worked her way through all of the administrative responsibilities in chemical engineering. She became not only our first graduate program coordinator but was also helping our faculty learn how to apply for grants and was preparing our budgets.
They, along with others, helped set a standard for the very strong and robust staff we have today, who are so supportive of each other, and dedicated to our students, our faculty, and our alumni.
Wendi: And not just supportive of BME. Until she retired two years ago, Donna was my go-to person whenever I hired new graduate coordinators. Donna would teach them the ropes, so BME staff are really collaborative and willing to share their knowledge outside their department
Diane: The same with Bonnie Lipari, our current research and grants administrator.
Wendi: And our Hajim staff award winner this year!
Diane: Our staff has been critically important to our success as a department, and we’re very fortunate they’re on our team.
Wendi: So where was the BME administrative office located during these early years?
Diane: Our first administrative office as a program was located for a short time in Gavett Hall, and then moved to the Medical Center for a number of years. That all changed with the opening of Goergen Hall in 2017. That was an important grounding moment for the department. Our undergraduate teaching labs were established there, and the building itself is such a wonderful, interactive setting for our students and our faculty. It really solidified a home base for our department, our faculty, and our students, and gave us visibility across the campus as well.
Also important was the support we received from Kevin Parker’s invention of Blue Noise Mask. Some of the royalties were used to establish two endowed chairs in biomedical engineering, and that in turn helped us leverage funding from the Whitaker Foundation to help expand our department and to use as a challenge grant for the construction of Goergen Hall.
NAVIGATING THE PANDEMIC
Wendi: This past year has been unlike any other in our University’s history, because of the enormous challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. I am very proud of the ways the Department of Biomedical Engineering, along with our other Hajim School departments, has confronted these challenges.
Diane: As we all know, when the severity of the pandemic became clear back in March 2020, the University decided to transition the remainder of the school year to remote learning. Our faculty were called on to quickly transform all of their courses to online learning, so students could continue their studies. Then, through the summer we worked very hard to prepare our courses and learning environment for hybrid learning so that our students could return to campus in the fall.
I’m enormously proud of our students and our staff for the dedication, resiliency, and perseverance that they have shown this past year. And our BME faculty have really been amazing. In addition to switching to those new teaching modalities, they’ve adapted their research labs and core research facilities in our department to a whole range of safety protocols and procedures.
I especially want to recognize Scott Seidman, who had become an expert in online education even before the pandemic, developing a laboratory based BME course that was completely online. When the pandemic hit, and we all needed to quickly move our courses online, Scott was instrumental in helping not only our BME faculty but many other Hajim School faculty navigate that transition. Scott won the Goergen Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching last fall, and it was so very well deserved for all his outstanding teaching over the years—and particularly so during the pandemic.
Wendi: This has been an especially difficult environment for our first-year students to enter at the start of their college experience.
Diane: Absolutely. At the start of the fall semester, I reached out to about a dozen alumni, and asked them if they could prepare an inspirational video for BME 101, our introduction to biomedical engineering course. Our BME alumni are just so fantastic. They all said yes. They explained their career paths, provided some advice for first-year students and, most importantly, let the students know that “yes, you can do this, even in this challenging environment.” And they told some jokes about BME 101, too!
Diane: Having the opportunity to lead the Department of Biomedical Engineering as its chair is an enormous honor. I am blessed with fantastic faculty and staff, who make my job easy and wonderful. It is just very rewarding.
Wendi: So, what do you see as priorities for the department as you look to the future?
Diane: In the spirit of Meliora we want to continue to expand the impact of the department on our students’ lives, and on the world in general. That means:
It is critical for us to grow our research enterprise. As we’ve learned through this pandemic, much of our future as a society will depend upon innovations in biomedical sciences, biomedical engineering, and healthcare. We aim to continue to lead in biomedical innovation, medical technology, and new advances in healthcare. It is important for us to:
- increase and strengthen our research enterprise by building upon our areas of research expertise,
- recruit new BME faculty of the highest caliber so that we keep BME at the forefront of innovations and increase our international visibility,
- strengthen and expand our research infrastructure and core laboratories to ensure state-of-the-art research capabilities for our students and faculty.
We will continue to enrich our educational programs. We have been very dedicated and passionate about developing our undergraduate and graduate programs, and must continue to lead the way in biomedical engineering education. So, it is important for us to:
- grow our master’s and doctoral programs to increase the impact of the department’s education and research,
- continually improve our academic curricula to provide leading-edge training for our students
- provide new learning and academic enrichment activities for all of our students.
We aim to expand our collaborations and interactions with industry. We’re striving to grow our industry partnerships through research collaborations, and through new avenues for industry colleagues to partner in our educational mission, such as through internships, design projects, career mentoring, and site visits. It is so valuable for our students to interact with industry partners.
It is important to continue to engage our alumni with our department. In the past 20 years, we have built an amazing base of BME alumni that are leaders in a wide variety of successful and exciting career paths. As part of our 20-year anniversary celebration, this year we established the new BME Alumni Insight Series, a program wherein we bring alumni back to UR BME to provide a seminar and spend a half day interacting with our students and faculty. The goal of this program is to give our current students the opportunity to learn from the many career journeys and successes of our amazing alumni! Our BME alumni are an important facet of our department, and there are many ways we envision engaging our alumni with our students and faculty.
I would like to also extend the invitation to become engaged with our department to other University alumni out there just like me, who completed their undergraduate or graduate training in a different field of engineering or science, but later became interested or involved in in biomedical engineering. I encourage any alumni who may be interested in learning more about the BME department or engaging with our students or faculty to please reach out to me email@example.com.
HOW YOU CAN HELP US GROW
There are many ways University alumni, industry partners, and other friends of the Department of Biomedical Engineering can engage with our students, faculty, and researchers--for example as real readers, sponsors of senior design projects, research collaborators, mentors, and guest lecturers, to mention just a few.
In addition, the department has recently established three funds to which alumni, industry partners and other friends can contribute. These funds allow individuals to give in a way that directly impacts an area of their choice and help support the continued success of UR BME.
- The BME Undergraduate Fund supports undergraduate research, awards
and scholarships, senior design projects, and undergraduate program development.
- The BME Graduate Programs Fund supports graduate scholarships, research, professional development, awards, and new initiatives in graduate education.
- The BME Research and Innovation Fund supports pilot funds for research, innovative design projects and clinical translation, core research facilities, and industry engagement.
These funds enable our alumni, industry partners, and other friends to contribute directly to help us forge the next 20 years of our BME department together!
(See the UR BME Magazine for the latest updates in research, education, and innovation from the UR BME department.)
ABOUT THE PHOTOS . . .
Top row, left to right:
Katie Bush ’03 was among the first students to enroll in the University’s new biomedical engineering program.
Munnerlyn Atrium in Goergen Hall, BME’s home since 2007, provides an inviting, collaborative environment.
Scott Seidman, one of BME’s founding faculty members, was instrumental in helping other engineering faculty pivot to online teaching last spring.
Middle row, left to right:
Dottie Welch, BME’s first undergraduate coordinator, helped set a standard for staff excellence.
Ryan DeAngelis ‘14, Spencer Klubben ‘14, and Mohammad Musleh ‘14 participate in an 8 week Clinical practicum as part of BME’s Medical Technology and Innovation Master’s Program
YeJin Jeong ’16, Nikki Sroka ’16, Jessica He ’16, and Adam Langenbucher ’16 demonstrate their adjustable cooking skirt for portable stoves used in Kenya, an example of the real word challenges BME students tackle in their senior design projects.
Bottom row, left to right:
Professor Mark Buckley mentors Manny Ramirez-Garcia ‘20, a PhD student in his lab at the time
Lisa DeLouise, professor of dermatology, and Danielle Benoit, professor of biomedical engineering, collaborate on a research project in 2017, illustrating the advantages of having a world class Medical Center within walking distance of Goergen Hall.
Langchen (Elsie) Fan ‘20, a recent PhD graduate who worked in the lab of Laurel Carney, the Marylou Ingram Professor of Biomedical Engineering, assembles an electrode used in her research in auditory processing of contents complex sounds.