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Biomedical engineering becomes a department, uniting several disciplines

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2004 - Spring


In eight years, biomedical engineering at Yale has grown from a fledgling undergraduate major to the university’s newest department.

The Yale Corporation approved the formation of the interdisciplinary Department of Biomedical Engineering last summer with the participation of the medical school as well as the faculties of engineering and arts and sciences and the John B. Pierce Laboratory. Yale has offered an interdisciplinary program in biomedical engineering since 1996, led by James S. Duncan, Ph.D., professor of diagnostic radiology, biomedical engineering and electrical engineering, but the decision to create a department signals how far the field has come. “I see a whole new set of symbiotic capabilities coming out of this partnership,” said Paul A. Fleury, Ph.D., dean of the Faculty of Engineering. These include the marriage of computer modeling of tissue mechanics with clinical practice, the application of computer technology to enhance imaging data from MRI, and techniques for using biologically compatible materials to deliver drugs or cells.

The department already has 70 undergraduate and 30 graduate students. There are nine primary and four secondary faculty members, with plans to fill three more primary faculty positions. Ongoing research projects include bioimaging and intervention in neocortical epilepsy, modeling of drug transport for brain tumor therapy, motor control in low-back injuries, and fMRI for neurosurgical planning in epilepsy. The department is now housed in the Becton Science Center, but ground was broken in December for its new home in the Engineering Research Building on the corner of Prospect and Trumbull streets.

Fleury says the department is fully interdisciplinary, with several faculty members appointed in both the medical school and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. “We expect that this arrangement will enable seamless relationships among the departments,” he said.

W. Mark Saltzman, Ph.D., chair of the new department, says the interdisciplinary environment and potential for collaboration are what drew him to Yale. Saltzman, who was previously at Cornell University, is working on drug delivery and tissue engineering. He says his top priorities as chair are to enlarge the faculty and to add new courses.

Fleury says the Yale program will succeed because it is closing a cultural gap. “Medical doctors often see engineers merely as gadgeteers who can supply methods or devices, but are not interested in or capable of engaging in the deeper roots of clinical and medical challenges,” he said. “Conversely, engineers are often skeptical of doctors’ scientific interests and depth. I am glad to say that these gap characteristics are vanishingly small here at Yale.”

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