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BME aims high as it turns 15

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Raaga Kanakam and Sebastian Espinoza, juniors in biomedical engineering, work on their final project for an electric circuit theory class – prototype touch sensors that could potentially be used on the fingertips of the 3D printed prosthetic hands now available for children. (Photo by J. Adam Fenster)

Sept. 2, 2015 -- With only 90 seconds to make his pitch, Samuel Kwak ’15 of biomedical engi­neering held up a penny and a pen to demonstrate how the device created by his Senior Design team will help improve spinal fusion op­erations. “We ensure that surgeons will be able to consistently remove 80 percent of the (disc) material each and every time, ensuring both safe and successful spinal fusion surgery,” he explained.

“And that’s my two cents,” he concluded with a flourish, now holding up not one but two pennies—and draw­ing appreciative laughter at the annual BME elevator pitch competition.

The Department of Biomedical Engineering is also preparing a “pitch” as it celebrates its 15th anniversary. It wants to position itself among the top 10 to 20 BME programs in the country.

“I think Rochester has the potential to build a world-class biomedical engineering program,” says professor Richard Waugh, who has been the department’s chairman since its inception. “Maybe I’m just naturally competitive, but when I look at a lot of the programs ranked ahead of us, I know our program is as good or better than some of them.”

The department has certainly made its mark on the Hajim School of Engineering & Applied Sciences. Though it is the youngest of the school’s six departments, BME has boasted the largest undergraduate enrollment for the last several years, reaching 357 last fall.

It enrolls the highest percentage of female undergraduates—43 percent last fall.

Its Senior Design Day, developed by associ­ate professor Amy Lerner, served as a model for the school-wide design day presentation that started four years ago.

Humble beginnings

 This is all the more impressive considering the program’s humble beginnings.

Waugh initially envisioned launching an in­terdepartmental program for graduate students only. However, the University had just embarked on its “Renaissance Plan,” which emphasized undergraduate education.

“Duncan Moore (the engineering dean at that time) indicated that if I did not have an under­graduate program, I was probably not going to get much attention from the administration, so could we start one?” Waugh relates. “And having no clue what I was getting into, I said ‘sure.’”

When the biomedical engineering program was launched in 1997, it occupied a couple of rooms in a second-floor corner of Gavett Hall; its first graduating class consisted of four students.

“There was an early fear that if we created a biomedical engineering department, we would just steal students from other departments, but that wasn’t true,” says professor Diane Dalecki, then a postdoctoral scholar in electrical engineering, who helped design the undergradu­ate curriculum for the new program. “What we ended up doing was attracting students who would never have been in engineering. And a large proportion of the students in that category were women.”

Funding from the Whitaker Foundation and royalties that the University received from the invention of Blue Noise Mask helped the pro­gram hire faculty members, many of whom hold joint appointments at the School of Medicine and Dentistry. “The collegiality of the faculty here, particularly among department chairs at the Medical Center, really helped make this work,” Waugh says.

Soon after becoming a department in 2000, biomedical engineering moved to new quarters at the Medical Center. And soon after that, sub­stantial gifts from Robert Goergen, Charles Mun­nerlyn, The Whitaker Foundation, Robert Sloan, and other donors, combined with state and federal funding, enabled construction to begin on a new $37.7 million biomedical engineering and optics building that bears Goergen’s name and is now the department’s home. That, too, benefited from collaboration—with the Institute of Optics.

 Donna Porcelli, who had just joined BME as its graduate program coordinator, remembers watching from across Elmwood Avenue as the construction progressed. “We could see this building going up and up. It was kind of cool.”

Building through the draft

So how does BME build up its ranking?

“I really feel we need to have about 20 (tenure-track) faculty at a minimum if we’re going to be competitive at the top end,” Waugh said. With the recent hiring of Associate Professor Catherine Kuo, the department now has 16. The University’s newly launched Rochester Neurorestorative Institute could offer an opportunity to add more, Waugh believes.

Neurorestoration involves the recovery of central and peripheral nervous system functions that have been lost as a result of injury or disease. Advances will most likely occur as a result of tissue engineering, nerve implants, implantable devices to simulate nerve function, robotics that serve as prostheses, or brain-machine computer interfaces, Waugh notes. “All of those areas are right in the biomedical engineering wheelhouse.”

But even with more faculty hires, higher rankings – which depend in part on faculty research productivity and funding -- won’t come overnight. Virtually all of BME’s faculty hires have come in as assistant professors. “We’ve really built through the draft,” Waugh said. “So we don’t have anyone with 10 postdocs and 5,000 square feet of lab space, cranking out 20 papers a year. I think we have some people who could get there. But it takes time (to build large research labs). Especially with federal funding the way it is, and the teaching load that we have to manage.”

There’s a flip side to that, adds Dalecki. The department has benefited from hiring relatively young, enthused faculty members who are “really dedicated to both their students and to their research. You can see that in the way they involve students in their research labs and bring their research into the classroom.”

“Throughout this whole process, the faculty who have come here clearly wanted to be involved in growing a brand new department. That has brought us some really special people, and we’re really lucky for that.”