February 18, 2013
Medical and engineering faculty and students at the University of Michigan now have more opportunities than ever to collaborate via the Department of Biomedical Engineering. The joint BME department is officially part of both the Medical School and the College of Engineering.
"It's the first time this has been done at the University of Michigan, but there are about eight other universities with similar joint department structures between medicine and engineering," says Douglas Noll, PhD, the Ann and Robert H. Lurie Professor of Biomedical Engineering and BME department chair. It took about seven years to work through all the processes necessary to merge the two academic units, each with unique faculty cultures, financial models, and tenure requirements.
"Advances in medicine increasingly are dependent upon engineering," says James Woolliscroft, MD, the Lyle C. Roll Professor of Medicine and dean of the U-M Medical School. "Similarly, engineering increasingly is moving into biological systems. And so it just seemed natural and appropriate to facilitate that interaction."
In fact the Medical School is the College of Engineering's largest research partner on campus, with a quarter-billion dollars in research contracts and grants underway at any given time. So one result of the department's new status will be access to space on the medical campus close to physicians, clinical researchers, and patients where it will be easier to develop and test new technologies for clinical use. Getting U-M medical devices and technologies into clinical trials and approved by the Food & Drug Administration for use in patients is a major goal for the department.
The expanded department will benefit from the Coulter Translational Research Partnership—an endowed program in the College of Engineering and Medical School that helps teams of engineers and clinicians move new technology from the laboratory to the market. "Most private companies that spin off from U-M research come from either medicine or engineering," says David Munson Jr., PhD, the Robert J. Vlasic Dean of Engineering. "If we are working that closely together, we should be joined in a more formal way."
Coulter funding already has produced U-M spin-off companies. One such company, Tissue Regenerative Systems (TRS), markets technology developed by Hollister and Stephen Feinberg, DDS, a professor of dentistry and surgery. TRS currently is preparing for clinical trials of tissue-engineered jawbones.
"U-M is an incredibly collaborative place," says Munson. "People here aren't just interested in collaborating; they actively seek out opportunities to work together."
Rachael Schmedlen, PhD, a lecturer in biomedical engineering, is on the front lines of collaborative education. She teaches a new course for engineering undergraduates called Clinical Observation and Needs Finding, which was piloted in the spring of 2011. Undergraduate students who take the course spend eight to 10 hours per week observing and shadowing physicians and nurses in several clinical departments at University Hospital. They learn how to talk to physicians, how to ask questions, and what it's like to work in a busy hospital.
"The feedback from our students has been overwhelmingly positive," says Schmedlen. "Sometimes the students go on grand rounds and hear all the medical jargon. They see how hectic it is in the ER and how frustrating it can be to deal with the electronic systems and pagers going off every 10 minutes."
Schmedlen believes the new department structure will give engineering students more opportunities to interact with medical professionals in the classroom and the clinic—something that's particularly important for biomedical engineers who design devices and technology to be used in a clinical environment.
Woolliscroft and Munson say the department's joint administrative structure and increased funding will make it possible to expand the BME curriculum and develop new courses for medical students who want to learn about biomedical engineering. Another goal is recruiting and hiring about 20 new faculty members.
It's all still in the planning stages, but faculty and administrators are anticipating more engineering courses taught by physicians and new master's degree programs in regulatory affairs or medical device development. Maybe even a new pre-med curriculum.
"There is a huge demand from students for educational experiences that combine biology and engineering," says Woolliscroft. "These students are incredibly capable, and we want to do everything we can to meet their needs and expectations."
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