Past, Present and Future of Biomedical Engineering

Larry McIntire, Wallace H. Coulter Chair and Professor, spoke to students on November 3rd regarding the past, present, and future of the biomedical engineering department at Georgia Tech. With ‘Wallace H. Coulter’ referenced everywhere in BME, where did it actually come from? As a student studying electronics at Tech in the early 1930s, Wallace Coulter spent two years at Tech before going on to found Coulter Corporation based on his influential work in developing the industrial fine particle counting principle referred to as the Coulter Principle.

The department itself was founded back in 1997 by Don Giddens, Dean Emeritus and Aerospace Engineering Professor, who served as Dean of Engineering up until July 1, 2011. Initially an Aerospace professor who moved to Johns Hopkins University to serve as Dean of Engineering in 1992, Giddens was recruited back to Atlanta by the Head of the Emory Health Science Center, Michael Johns, M.D., and the Provost at Georgia Tech to serve as department chair of biomedical engineering. The biomedical engineering program initially maintained a cap for the number of students entering the department with specific GPA requirements and did not have the first students come in until Spring 2001. Fall 2001 students were minimal. It was also in 2001 that the Coulter Foundation donated $25 million dollars to Tech following the death of Wallace Coulter to help fund the two-part BME department housed in both Emory University and Georgia.

As department chair, McIntire reports to both the Dean of Medicine at Emory as well as the Dean of Engineering at Tech. While heavily based here at Tech with twenty six to twenty seven faculty members, the program also has eight faculty members that have tenure lines at labs at Emory University. Since the creation of the department, the size of full-time faculty members has grown from an initial 15 individuals in 2003 to 35 currently. The department is authorized to grow to a total of 40 full-time faculty members.

The biotechnology quad did not exist back in 1998, and did not start to form until 1999 with the Parker H. Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Bioscience (IBB). McIntire shared that “the ES&T building followed in 2002, Whitaker in 2003, the Molecular Science and Engineering (M) in 2006, and the Marcus building in 2008 in Tech’s Biotechnology Complex.” Created on a $200 million investment a little over ten years ago, the initiative to move into bio-related research allowed for these programs and opportunities available to flourish. With accessibility to the Whitaker building in August 2003, more students could be accommodated with the addition of resources such as labs and more classroom space. As a result, the cap on incoming students was lifted bringing the number of freshman to 196 from a mere 8. Having battled with mechanical engineering for many years to be the largest major among incoming freshman, biomedical engineering finally sits as the largest major among freshman undergraduates. With this exceptional growth, the department will be taking in two more faculty members in January that currently work in BME Departments in the Washington University in St. Louis and the University of Virginia. One of these members works in the field of medicine in the area of orthopedics and the other works in the field of nanotechnology in the area of probes for imaging and therapeutic delivery.

“Having started from a clean slate in BME curricula, the department decided to take on problem-based learning approach,” stated Dr. McIntire. He shared that these classes were created to allow students to use the knowledge gained to address large scale problems and ultimately enhance collaboration and communication skills which appeal to many companies.  These problem-based learning courses also work to alleviate the issue with the student-faculty ratio that tends to bog Tech down in national rankings.  It is also important to notice that research opportunities for students are heavily based on grant money that faculty have available. National Institutes of Health (NIH) provided a total $24.5 million of annual grant funding for 2010. While the department does have other funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) within the Department of Defense, industries, and the National Science Foundation (NSF), pressure on decreasing NIH funding demands that non-governmental funding needs to be pursued as an alternative to NIH funding. The NSF and NIH offers multi-investigative center grants that would work well with the major research areas in the department. Currently we have several of these biomedical engineering partnership grants that can be funded for five years for up to a million dollars a year and composed of teams of three or four investigators per grant.

With multiple Ph.D.s available within the Coulter Department, the biomedical engineering joint degree is becoming more prominent than the bioengineering program or the bioinformatics program. The new joint Ph.D. degree that has been started between Georgia Tech, Emory, and Peking University has approximately twenty five Ph.D. students enrolled as of 2011, out of a total of approximately 230 Ph.D.s within the Department. This international Ph.D. program requires co-advisors at both Atlanta and Beijing campuses. Having been approved by the Board of Trustees at Emory, Board of Regents at Georgia Tech and the Ministry of Education in China, this joint Ph.D. program serves as a “novel push forward” in terms of international education. The decision to pick Peking University (“the Harvard of China”) over Tsinghua, “the MIT of China”, relied on “location, growth cycles, and where [each] of their strengths were compared to where [Tech’s] strengths were” shared McIntire. Tsinghua already has around sixty faculty members in each of the classical engineering fields of electrical, chemical, mechanical, and civil, and as a result, Peking University chose to take on bioengineering and nanotechnology-based materials engineering.

As far as future plans go at Tech, an Institute of Nanomedicine is being pursued and will continue to be developed. With the hope that the  Marcus Building will house some additional biomedical engineering faculty, McIntire shared that “they will serve as a platform to go into [areas] such as treating cancer through nanotechnology as well as other therapeutics, and [will] develop new contrast agents for medical imaging.” Also, the National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center and Science and Technology Center Programs could be utilized to develop areas such as neural technology through looking at the interface between electrical interactions and cells, and stem cell bioprocessing. The first Engineered Biosystems Building (EEB1) that is to be built at the bottom of the hill from the IBB near the facilities parking lot facing 10th Street will have Biology, BME, Chemistry, and Biomolecular faculty. EEB2, while still in the planning stages, would be a more computational building and would have the Integrated Biological Systems Institute. With research space reaching capacity, these new buildings will provide more usable area to allocate for various projects. The Marcus building and the Molecular Sciences and Engineering building still have room, but are constantly being filled by new faculty labs and other research projects.

In overall engineering education and research, Georgia Tech has moved up into the same groupings as MIT and Stanford.  Georgia Tech also continues to move towards prominence in biomedical engineering, where we have moved into the 2nd ranking in the US News and World Report surveys for both our graduate and undergraduate programs. Students as well as faculty are also interacting with many companies throughout the nation. As an example, Ajit Yoganathan, Wallace H. Coulter Distinguished Faculty Chair in Biomedical Engineering and Associate Chair for Research and Regents’ Professor, has worked with both Medtronic and St. Jude on heart valve projects, and brings biomedical engineering closer to Atlanta.  For the future, Georgia Tech will continue to work towards becoming the very best in biomedical engineering excellence.

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