Skip to Main Content

Human body as machine

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2016 - Winter


How Yale launched the Department of Biomedical Engineering.

To understand biomedical engineering, says Jon S. Morrow, Ph.D., M.D. ’76, HS ’77, FW ’80, chair and Raymond Yesner Professor of Pathology, one must start in the 1970s. The tools of the time confined research to such narrow areas as a single protein or gene. “We called it the streetlight phenomenon,” he said. “You could only study what you could see or measure, and it was very limited.” That began to change in the mid-1980s and into the 1990s. Advances in computers, computation, imaging, biology, and the completion of the mapping of the human genome in 2003 enabled a far deeper understanding of biological processes. Suddenly, scientists could view and measure much more. “You’ve got these massively parallel technologies that allowed you to see the whole landscape of processes in large scale,” Morrow said. “Instead of a streetlight, you had a floodlight.”

This deeper understanding elicited an “aha” moment—the human body looked more and more like a hugely complex machine. Researchers started applying engineering principles to biology and clinical treatment. “People began to realize that a biological system is just a complicated device, and that the engineering and computer science side of things has solutions,” Morrow said.

By the late 1990s, biology and engineering had merged into a new and exciting discipline with the promise of everything from artificial limbs and organs to individualized drug therapies, from medical devices to cures for genetic diseases.

Universities around the nation were creating departments in this innovative area, which held enormous promise for advancing medical practice and biomedical research. How would Yale respond?

Yale already had a head start. The medical school had become a leader in imaging technology—a key component of the new discipline. And there was interest among faculty and students in pursuing this field. The building blocks were there; the question was how to assemble them.

“Not only did we have experts, not only was it coming together at Yale, but it truly tapped into the needs of the students who wanted to pursue this,” said David A. Kessler, M.D., J.D., then dean of the School of Medicine, and now professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco.

Yale was ready to jump into biomedical engineering, but key questions arose: How should Yale incorporate this new field within its existing areas of study and research? Should it create a new department or a stand-alone institute? If the university inaugurated a department, should it be part of the medical school or the Faculty of Arts and Sciences?

Kessler and the provost at the time, Alison F. Richard, Ph.D., appointed nine senior faculty members from the medical school and the graduate school to form a panel to explore the possibilities.

After nine months of study, the committee issued its report in August 1999, recommending the formation of a biomedical engineering department within the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and tied to the medical school. The committee rejected the stand-alone model favored by some institutions. “They become insular,” said Morrow, who served as one of the committee’s two co-chairs along with Bruce McClennan, M.D., professor emeritus and biomedical imaging. “They talk to themselves. You never learn anything by talking to someone who does the same thing you do.”

The new department would have its own faculty; and faculty from the medical school and elsewhere at Yale would hold secondary appointments in biomedical engineering. “That was a very important piece, allowing faculty the freedom to participate across schools and disciplines, and across graduate and professional and undergraduate boundaries,” Kessler said.

The university, including then-President Richard C. Levin, endorsed the committee’s recommendations. “Everyone got behind it,” Kessler said. “It was across Yale. Nobody owned it and yet everybody owned it.”

We don’t want to be an average program

Yale’s new Department of Biomedical Engineering opened its doors in 2003 within the School of Engineering and Applied Science. The university lured W. Mark Saltzman, Ph.D., the Goizueta Foundation Professor of Chemical and Biomedical Engineering, and Cellular & Molecular Physiology, from Cornell University to serve as chair. When Saltzman graduated from Iowa State in 1981, biomedical engineering was not yet an established field, so he earned his undergraduate degree in chemical engineering. A pioneer in drug delivery and tissue engineering systems, Saltzman relished the chance to build a department from scratch.

“I liked the idea of starting something new at a place where I was pretty confident it would be successful,” said Saltzman, whose team devises novel methods for the controlled delivery of drugs, proteins, and genes.

Saltzman’s initial goals were to hire outstanding faculty and build a curriculum. He hired slowly, knowing that each new person would have a significant effect on the overall department culture. Given that the department would never be very large—today it has about 15 members—Saltzman gave a lot of thought to its focus. “We picked areas that we wanted to excel in,” he said.

Saltzman settled on four: imaging, an area in which Yale was already a leader; biomolecular engineering, Saltzman’s specialty, applying engineering to biological systems; biomechanics, understanding how the body works from a mechanical engineering perspective; and systems biology, studying biological systems as a network of components that interact with one another.

A dozen years later, the department is thriving, Saltzman said. It has developed largely as its founders envisioned—multidisciplinary, collegial, integrated with the medical school, and committed to undergraduate education. The department confers about 40 undergraduate and 10 graduate degrees a year, with an average of 50 doctoral students at some stage of their studies at any given time. “We don’t want to be an average program,” said Saltzman, who ended his 12-year tenure as chair on July 1. “We want to be an outstanding program. Even though we are a young department, I think we are judged as among the best programs in the country. This happened fast for us because of the strength of Yale.”

The program has produced numerous startups and endless innovation. Saltzman cites the work of Rong Fan, Ph.D., associate professor of biomedical engineering. Fan uses nanotechnology to “talk to cells”’—employing tiny sensors to take dozens of measurements of an individual cell. Saltzman also mentions Laura E. Niklason, M.D., Ph.D., professor of anesthesiology and biomedical engineering, who joined the biomedical engineering faculty a decade ago. She credits Yale with allowing her to pursue what some might consider her “outlandish” research in lung regeneration. “Yale’s culture is pretty good at embracing new ideas,” Niklason said.

Saltzman adds that biomedical engineering isn’t just high-tech. A whole other aspect involves engineering a complex device, such as a ventilator for newborn babies, into something so simple and foolproof it can operate in a third-world hospital without reliable access to electricity—a project now underway in the department under the guidance of Anjelica Gonzalez, Ph.D., the Donna Dubinsky Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering. Gonzalez teaches a course—called Biotechnology for the Developing World—that introduces students to engineering design for low-resource environments in global health.

A passion for biomedical engineering

In many ways, Elias Quijano embodies the way in which Kessler, Morrow, Saltzman, and others envisioned the program. The son of immigrants from Ecuador and Colombia who never attended college, Quijano arrived at Yale College in 2008 with no interest in science. Needing to fulfill a requirement, he took Saltzman’s course, “Frontiers of Biomedical Engineering.” “In Dr. Saltzman’s class, I developed a passion for biomedical engineering and decided to study it,” Quijano said. “It allowed me to appreciate the contributions that an individual can make to medicine.”

After graduating in 2012, Quijano worked on gene therapies for cystic fibrosis in Saltzman’s lab. Now he is a first-year student in Yale’s M.D./Ph.D. program. “I don’t know exactly where that’s going to take me,” Quijano said, “but I’m confident that my engineering education will provide me with the skills to bridge the gap between the lab and the clinic, between research and medicine.”

Previous Article
The tools of medicine
Next Article
Keeping the “Goldilocks” organ cool