Building an entirely new academic program has its benefits. Sure, some parts of the job can be difficult – handling everything from faculty searches to office supply orders is enough to make anyone’s head spin. But there’s a reason a clean slate is so valuable: you can write anything you want on it.
That’s the opportunity Metin Akay seized in 2010 when he became the founding chairman and John S. Dunn Endowed Chair Professor of the Cullen College of Engineering’s Department of Biomedical Engineering. At that time, the department was little more than a name – just two faculty member, no staff and no firm curricula. A challenge, to be sure, but also the perfect situation to create the biomedical engineering department of the future.
Akay is an ideal fit for such a task. Not only is he an accomplished researcher, he’s a leading figure in the biomedical engineering community. He’s been handpicked to serve on boards charged with everything from raising public awareness of engineering to fostering international research partnerships. He’s also deeply committed to engineering education; over the years he has helped mentor several up-and-coming young researchers, many of whom have gone on to become highly regarded in their fields.
In building the Cullen College’s biomedical engineering program, Akay used his deep understanding of the field to answer two big questions: what kind of culture should the department have and where should it focus its research efforts.
On the research front, Akay naturally selected the areas where he sees the biggest opportunities – those where scientific and technological advances meet growing patient populations. In Akay’s estimation, these boil down to:
- Neural and rehabilitation engineering, with a focus on neural implants, neurogenesis (the creation of neural cells), neurochips, cognitive engineering, neural signal and image processing and modeling, and brain/computer interface systems.
- Biomedical imaging, particularly in vivo molecular and cellular imaging research with a strong emphasis on imaging cancer biomarkers, therapy assessment, and cancer biology models. Also important is clinical cardiovascular and brain imaging, including the development of an interdisciplinary research program in these fields.
- Bionanoscience, particularly regenerative medicine, stem cell engineering, infectious diseases, bio-inspired engineering, engineering immunity and global healthcare.
This approach to research has shaped the department’s faculty roster. All of the department’s eleven tenure/tenure track faculty members (as well as the two who will be hired in the coming months) focus on one of these fields. That includes the three faculty members who joined the department this fall. They are:
- Chandra Mohan, Hugh Roy and Lilly Cranz Cullen Distinguished University professor. Mohan joined to the department from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, where he held the Walter M. and Helen D. Bader Professorship in Arthritis and Autoimmune Disease Research as well as the McGee Chair in Arthritis Research. His research has focused on the genetics of systemic lupus erythematosus, a systemic autoimmune disease with a wide spectrum of phenotypes and pathological changes. Additional studies in the Mohan laboratory are aimed at tapping novel technologies to predict the onset and monitor the progression of chronic autoimmune diseases.
- Associate professor Sergey Shevkoplyas, whose research focuses on blood microfluidics, with a particularly interest in using microfluidic devices and systems to gain a better understanding of the dynamics of blood flow and of the traffic of various circulating cells in complex networks of microvessels. He is also developing microfluidic devices for testing the mechanical properties of blood cells, as well as lab-on-a-chip technology for separating sub-populations of blood cells and rare circulating cells from samples of whole blood for diagnostic and other clinical applications.
- Assistant professor Tianfu Wu, who specializes in biomarker discovery and therapeutic interventions for autoimmune diseases. At the Cullen College Wu will continue to develop and apply novel technologies into the future diagnostics and theranostics (diagnostics and therapy combined) for various chronic diseases.
Since these three research thrust areas are the future of biomedical engineering, the department is reshaping its curricula around these topics as well, said Akay. The undergraduate capstone course has been remade, new courses have been introduced on the graduate and undergraduate levels and curricular tracks focusing on each of these fields will soon be available to undergrads.
Such a unified set of offerings, Akay said, will help establish a departmental culture that connects graduate and undergraduate students, as well as junior- and senior-level undergrads with those just starting college. These connections will allow students to form mentor relationships with their peers and ultimately result in improved retention rates.
Just as important, students who concentrate their education on one of these growing areas will improve their career prospects. “As long as they focus on a curricular track, there are plenty of opportunities. In more traditional programs, the people that come through may have a hard time finding a job,” said Akay.
One other key aspect of the department: both the research and education that takes place here will be healthcare oriented. While that may seem redundant in a biomedical engineering department, Akay insists that it’s not. Healthcare engineering, he said, is not only centered on getting papers published in academic journals. It is also focused on developing cutting-edge healthcare technologies from the macro to the nanoscale that can have an immediate impact on patient care, preferably in a relatively short amount of time.
“Healthcare engineering is about what we can do for society. It’s is about improving the quality of healthcare and reducing its cost. We want our graduate students to develop Ph.D. theses and conduct research that could have an immediate impact on how healthcare is delivered,” he stated.
Going hand-in-hand with a healthcare focus, he added, is a culture of entrepreneurship. Student researchers should work on ideas that can be easily translated to the clinical setting and every doctoral dissertation should result in a patent. Ideally, these projects will get taken up by an existing healthcare device or technology company or even be the basis of a student-run start-up, said Akay. When the department reaches this point, Akay’s vision for a biomedical engineering department of the future will be realized.
“We are building an environment of entrepreneurship and a healthcare focused academic curriculum to meet the demands of the economy and healthcare technology, management and delivery,” he said. “By doing this we can build one of the most respected and successful biomedical engineering programs in the United States and the even the world.”