Biomedical Engineering Continues to Advance at UT, Nationwide

The BME department graduated its first undergraduate class in 2006, and is already the fourth largest program in the nation. Learn what makes this department succeed.

Ray Almgren and students

Ray Almgren, vice president of developer and academic relations for National Instruments, discusses the ELVIS II circuit board with Cockrell School of Engineering biomedical engineering students. The technology, developed and provided by National Instruments, is used to help teach students everything from circuit design to instrumentation. Almgren toured the labs during the Biomedical Engineering Society Meeting hosted by the university's Biomedical Engineering Department.

The nation's leading experts in biomedical engineering met in Austin Oct. 6-9 to network with top faculty and students from around the world, to collaborate on new research and to discuss the future of biomedical engineering, one of the fastest growing fields in the nation.

The annual Biomedical Engineering Society Meeting (BMES), regarded as one of the most important biomedical engineering events in the nation to showcase and research, was hosted  for the first time by The University of Texas at Austin's Biomedical Engineering Department (BME), which graduated its first undergraduate class in 2006 but is already the fourth largest program in the nation.

That the three-day meeting took place in Austin, especially given its record-breaking attendance of 3,200, is a testament to the BME Department's growing imprint on the biomedical field and its accomplishments in both research and academic advancement over the years.

"The annual BMES meeting is the largest and most prestigious biomedical engineering meeting in the country," said Department Chair Dr. Nicholas Peppas. "Selection of Austin by the Board of BMES for this year's meeting indicates that The University of Texas at Austin is already recognized as one of the premier BME programs in the country."

Evolution of the Program

The department began as a graduate program in 1969 and in 2001 added an undergraduate degree.

"We started with a few, core faculty members from other departments and now we have faculty who consider biomed their home. It's a very young, youthful program and that's helped the undergraduate program grow and the graduate program to expand," said Dr. Christine Schmidt, a biomedical engineering professor.

In 2009, the department’s undergraduate graduating class was the fourth largest in the nation and its Ph.D. graduating class was the fifth largest.

The department is able to attract such a large number of students because the student-base in Texas is so large but the number of biomedical engineering options in the state is limited.

It helps that biomedical engineering is also one of the fastest growing fields in the nation, with the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projecting an employment growth of 72 percent by 2018—an increase that’s higher than any other field of engineering.

Engineering students and circuit board

During a lab in late September, biomedical engineering students use the ELVIS II circuit board and LabVIEW software developed and provided by National Instruments to measure variations in the heart. This is one of many ways that faculty and students in the department use the technology.

Peppas said the department is filling a hole for those students who want to bridge together the paths of health and engineering. Through the program, they are given the opportunities and resources to do so.

“We are the center of new research and educational initiatives with St. David’s Hospital, Dell Pediatric Research Institute, Seton Medical Center and other units and we have active clinical internships for our students at Breckenridge Hospital and M.D. Anderson in Houston,” Peppas said.  “We’re also proud of our Industrial Affiliates Program because it allows numerous local companies to interact with our department.” 

Of the students who graduate, about a third go to medical school or another professional school — like veterinary or law — a third go to graduate school for biomedical engineering and another third work in industry, said Jeff Hallock, the academic advising coordinator for the department.

Research of the future

The department is also one of the largest recipients of research money out of the engineering departments on campus. This funding support reflects how the biomedical industry has become a national priority in recent years as the country grapples with an aging population, growing health-care costs and an urgency to find solutions for medical problems.

Faculty and students have made far-reaching research advancements, most all of which can be or have been commercialized, including a technique created by Schmidt and her students that’s been tested on 3,000 transplant patients with damage to peripheral nerves. The technique encourages nerves to regrow and reconnect and it could transform how we treat everyone from injured soldiers, car accident victims and cancer patients.

Fellow BME professor, James Tunnell, has also made waves with a new pen-size, non-invasive device that can test for skin cancer in a matter of seconds. The device was named in BusinessWeek magazine as one of the “20 most important inventions of the next 10 years.”

And, like Tunnell, when it comes to finding advances in cancer research, the department is helping lead the way.

In 2009, it was selected among an elite national consortium that was awarded $11.6 million by the National Cancer Institute to establish a center for conducting innovative cancer research.

The following year, BME professors George Georgiou and Krish Roy were each awarded two of the first grants, $2 million and $1 million, respectively, from the newly established Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas to continue research on novel therapies for cancer’s two most deadly killers: liver and lymphoma.

The department's goal is to be one of the top 10 BME programs in the nation, something that’s obtainable given it was ranked 13th by U.S. News and World Report, and a comprehensive survey by the National Research Council recently ranked the department among the top 10 when it comes to the quality of its faculty and the impact of its research based on the number of citations of published work.

"Our department has a solid base that will continue to move forward and grow, be it through the transformative research advancements our faculty and students continue to make, or through the extensive educational foundation we’ve laid for our students,” Peppas said.

Importance of public-private partnerships

Much of the BME Department's success hinges on its relationship with, and support from, private industry. Private companies often sponsor research projects that students and faculty work on, and they help commercialize a technology once it is developed. They have also helped provide much-needed learning labs and equipment.

"Public-private partnerships are absolutely critical to the success of our department," Schmidt said. "A number already exist, including National Instruments, which helped fund our undergraduate teaching facilities. It's critical at all levels to have these interactions with private industry."

Two of the labs are named for National Instruments whose founder, Dr. James Truchard, a Cockrell School alumnus, helped secure funding for BME’s new six-story, world-class interdisciplinary teaching and research facility that also houses labs for the College of Natural Sciences and the College of Pharmacy

elvis II circuit board

ELVIS II technology

In the National Instruments labs on campus, students are introduced for the first time to the cutting-edge equipment developed, and provided, by the company. That equipment, like the ElVIS II circuit board and LabVIEW, a graphical programming environment used for data acquisition, instrument control and industrial automation, is used by millions of engineers and scientists around the world.

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Visit the Cockrell School's YouTube site to watch undergraduates and faculty discuss research in biomedical engineering.