WHEN ENGINEERING & MEDICINE MARRY
Words by Eve Jacobs / photograph by John Emerson
Biomedical engineering jumped to number one on The New York Times 2011 “Top 10 List: Where the Jobs Are.” That may be puzzling to many because the profession is young and not high-profile. Nonetheless, the field of biomedical engineering is growing rapidly even though the road to an advanced degree may look a bit like climbing Mt. Everest for those without the inclination to scale the towers of higher education.
But those not intimidated by math, engineering and science, who like school and want to prepare for a job of the future and with a future, should consider this profession. Whether the biomedical engineering is primarily engineering with a dollop of medicine, or chiefly medical sciences with underpinnings of engineering, is hotly debated in the field. The answer may just depend on which school the student chooses and which career paths present themselves.
UMDNJ’s Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences (GSBS) and NJIT launched a collaborative biomedical engineering doctoral program in 2005 with three students. The program’s credo, according to Joshua Berlin, PhD, UMDNJ’s founding co-director of the program and a professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Physiology at UMDNJ-New Jersey Medical School (NJMS), is to train students in fundamental engineering and biomedical science skills. “Biomedical engineering students should understand the language and culture of both fields,” he says.
“The program is fundamentally engineering with a bit of science at the majority of schools,” he explains. “The founding co-director from NJIT, William Hunter, PhD, came here from Johns Hopkins University, one of the few places where this department is located in the medical school. He understood the need for a real balance in training.”
Berlin’s background made him a natural choice to help create such a program. “Physiology is the study of the mechanisms by which your body works,” he states. “There is a tradition of engineering in this kind of research and of collaborative efforts between physiologists and engineers.”
Many applicants to the program have undergraduate or even Master’s degrees in engineering, with an interest in a biomedical field and the desire to conduct research. “Our goal is to have these engineers really get into the guts of biology,” Berlin says. “Or we take a student from the physical or biological sciences with strong analytical and math skills and teach them engineering.”
Well-trained biomedical engineers are in great demand, according to Berlin, especially in New Jersey’s biotechnology industry. “Biomedical engineers provide a natural bridge for engineering and science to advance hand-in-hand. We’re training a new kind of scientist,” he says.
Current directors of the program are GSBS neuroscientist Kevin Pang, PhD, and Richard Foulds, PhD, NJIT associate professor and associate chair for research in the department of biomedical engineering, whose research interests range from neuromuscular/ rehabilitation engineering to neural control of human movement and machine recognition of human gesture and human/machine interaction.
“Students must do one lab rotation — six months to a year — at NJIT and one rotation at GSBS. The goal is to find a lab to do research for the dissertation,” explains Pang, a professor in the NJMS Department of Neurology and Neurosciences. “We want to expose students to different areas and different mentors.” His research interests include understanding the neurobiology of learning, memory and attention and the importance of these processes in mental health disorders and neurodegenerative diseases.
According to Pang, this program is unique to New Jersey. “There is a collaboration between the two schools, but each concentrates on its expertise. You won’t find that in other biomedical engineering programs,” he says.
The program takes five to six years to complete and currently has about 30 students. Requirements include 12 credit hours in engineering and 12 credit hours in life sciences. “Most of our students have a background in engineering,” he says, “but need training in the life sciences.”
The program’s four basic areas of conconcentration are: molecular and cellular engineering, which may include working with stem cells in such projects as fashioning skin grafts and membranes that can be used medically for delivering drugs; instrumentation, including imaging technology; biomechanics — studying how we move about and how to improve rehabilitation, physical therapy and orthopedics; and neuroscience, including investigations into the function of critical proteins underlying nerve function or the treatment for neurological diseases.
“Basically, we prepare students to be researchers. Some of our graduates go into industrial positions, others into academic positions,” Pang says.
The interests of the students vary widely and their chosen areas of research reflect those interests. “Some are in neurosciences, looking at how different brain areas interact and how these areas relate to behavior. One goal is to investigate computer-brain interface. In stem cell research, students investigate how cells differentiate. Stem cells are important in many areas — one cell can divide to become many other things. We’re interested in regeneration,” he says.
“We look at bone growth — how to stimulate bone growth in certain diseases. In biomechanics, we might look at the forces behind muscle movements and how this is different in chronic debilitating diseases such as multiple sclerosis,” he continues.
“We have students at Kessler Institute looking into cognitive rehabilitation after stroke — how to stimulate brain areas and find better treatments. Other students are studying recovery from traumatic brain injury,” he explains.
The biomedical engineering degree is granted jointly by both universities. Interestingly, although engineering is still more attractive to men than women, this type of engineering is equally compelling to both sexes.
Students are working on many practical and desperately needed solutions to critical human problems. Perhaps among this group will be the creator of a device to enhance the mobility of spinal-cord injured patients or the inventor of neurally controlled arms for amputees or the discoverer of new biomaterials to replace severely damaged joints. In fact, students in this program are making inroads into these three areas at this very moment — and will continue their work in a profession with truly limitless possibilities.