CULLEN COLLEGE OF ENGINEERING

University of Houston Cullen College of Engineering

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Board Approves New Biomedical Engineering Department at UH

By: 

Erin D. McKenzie

The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board has approved the establishment of the department of biomedical engineering at the University of Houston Cullen College of Engineering.

The first department added at the college in more than 35 years, officials said it could be implemented as early as spring 2009.

Its establishment is among several initiatives outlined on the Cullen College’s strategic plan intended, along with an overall plan by the university, to help boost UH to tier one status.

Now the sixth department at the college, the coordinating board’s approval couldn’t come at a better time, said Joseph W. Tedesco, Elizabeth D. Rockwell Endowed Chair and dean of the Cullen College of Engineering.

“Biomedical is one of the fastest growing disciplines in engineering,” Tedesco said. “If we are going to be a nationally competitive engineering program, we must have a strong, well-funded program in the biomedical sciences. Launching a biomedical engineering department will allow us to recruit prolific researchers and attract more prospective students into the discipline.”

The department is an outgrowth of a longstanding biomedical engineering program, teaching the application of engineering techniques to the medical field. For more than seven years, the program has been housed in the Cullen College’s department of mechanical engineering. Since its inception students have been offered a master’s degree option, and more recently, in 2003, the program began offering a bachelor’s in biomedical engineering.

In the short five years since the undergraduate degree was established, the university has already seen demand rise. Freshman enrollment has climbed from 12 in 2003 to 51 in 2008, said Fritz Claydon, the college’s associate dean for research and administration.

The college expects these numbers to continue to go up pending the coordinating board’s approval of a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering, anticipated to become effective as early as fall 2009.

Increasing enrollment would help generate a talented pool of graduates expected to help staff the biomedical engineering field, which is expected to see faster than average job growth, a 21 percent increase through 2016, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The federal agency attributes the rise in demand for biomedical engineers to the aging population and the need for more sophisicated medical equipment and procedures.

Prior to the department’s official launch, a national search is underway for a founding department chair, Claydon said. This individual, he said, will be instrumental in adding as many as 10 new faculty to the department over the course of the next five years.

In the meantime, the college does have more than a dozen engineering and life science faculty that are currently directly involved in biomedical engineering research. Some of these research collaborations include work with physicians at the Texas Heart Institute and a 30-year research agreement with The Methodist Hospital.

It’s efforts such as these, Claydon said, that are expected to support and advance an already strong health care sector, home to the world-renowned Texas Medical Center.

“The fact we are amongst the world’s largest medical community there should be plenty of opportunities for synergistic activities and interaction,” Claydon said.

At present, the college has plans to house the department of biomedical engineering in the Science and Engineering Research and Classroom Complex, Claydon said.

While the focus of the college’s current program is on biosensing and bioanalytics the addition of faculty, courses and a Ph.D. option is projected to expand this emphasis, said Matthew Franchek, chair of the college’s department of mechanical engineering and director of the biomedical engineering program. Department curriculum will include studies concentrated on gene, tissue and neuro engineering as well as biodevices, biosensors and proteomics and protein therapies.

“I’m very happy to see it grow into a department,” said Franchek, noting collaborations by faculty across disciplines, long before biomedical engineering gained popularity, helped to make the new department possible. “This has been a 20-year ambition. It took a lot of selfless people, a ‘we’ environment, to make this happen.”

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