Progress — by Design
WNEU’s Biomedical Engineering Program Is in a Growth Mode
By KEVIN FLANDERSInside the labs at Western New England University’s Biomedical Engineering (BME) department, students aren’t simply studying the technologies behind medicine. They’re constantly searching for ways to improve them.
It’s a philosophy, acting Department Chair Dr. Robert Gettens and BME students agree, that prepares them well to be leaders in a variety of careers. Many recent WNEU graduates have become specialized medical attorneys. Others have gravitated toward research. One particularly accomplished alumnus, Ryan Turner, is on his way to becoming a brain surgeon. But, regardless of what path graduates choose, they all share an ability to comprehensively analyze and enhance technology, a trait that is imbued in each student while studying at WNEU.
“Rather than teach students what the functions are of particular medical devices, we focus on the fundamentals of engineering so they will be able to go out and design new products,” said Gettens, an associate professor who will remain the acting department chair until Dr. Judy Cezeaux returns from her sabbatical.
Named by U.S. News to its “Best in Undergraduate Engineering” list, WNEU’s Biomedical Engineering department has seen a marked increase in enrollment over the past five years. What was once a fledgling department with fewer than 10 graduates per year has become a paragon of biomedical pedagogy that sends about 20 students each year into the field. With five professors — each boasting impressive credentials to go along with a Ph.D. — the department has inspired students from throughout the nation to pack their cold-weather gear in preparation of continuing their studies in Western Mass.
“The numbers have skyrocketed,” said Gettens, who praised his students for their commitment and relentless pursuit of knowledge. “The students are always so engaged and dedicated to learning.”
Training Future Inventors
Take a moment to reflect on how far medical devices and the technologies that allow for their creation have come in the last 10, 20, and 50 years, enabling millions of individuals to have hope that wouldn’t have existed in the past. Now project those same time frames into the future, and the possibilities for expansion and invention seem unimaginable.
But for BME professors and students, future technologies are not only imaginable but viable. Every invention starts somewhere, and perhaps the incipient traces of tomorrow’s next breakthrough are currently confined to the notebook of a student in Western Mass. It’s not that much of a stretch, considering that 10 BME students at WNEU have been listed as inventors on patents since 2010. Moreover, almost 22% of graduating seniors since 2001 have received regional or national awards for their senior design projects. Engineering careers are no longer dominated by men, either, as more than 40% of WNEU’s BME students are women.
“What we teach here is engineering, which is all about designing,” Gettens told BusinessWest. “By the time they graduate, our students know how to design medical devices.”
The BME department also collaborates with several area hospitals to ensure that students are provided with the best opportunities possible. Among its partners are Baystate Medical Center, Mercy Medical Center, and Shriners Hospital for Children, as well as other local organizations and hospitals that utilize and advance medical technology. Additionally, a few seniors are currently teamed up with hospitals or companies to develop new devices that could potentially transcend the way patients are cared for.
In short, at WNEU, the future truly does lie in the here and now.
And the BME department hasn’t grown exclusively from an enrollment perspective. Following a two-phase, $12.8 million renovation and expansion project at Sleith Hall that concluded in September, students and staff are benefiting daily from two brand-new laboratories. The bioinstrumentation lab is dedicated mostly to the electronic components of engineering, including electrocardiography, bioamplifier design, ultrasound, signal-processing systems, and pulse oximetry. The second lab, meanwhile, serves as a simulated hospital room, complete with a dummy patient decked out in WNEU apparel who occupies the hospital bed. In this lab, students get to see the latest technologies in action and record their effectiveness in a medical setting. That way, when it comes time for these innovations to serve actual patients in hospitals, they will function at the highest levels possible.
In addition to their work inside the labs, WNEU students also have an opportunity each year to take part in a global health and technology course that includes a trip to Guatemala to learn about healthcare in a foreign environment. The BME department, which also includes professors Dr. Anthony English, Dr. Michael Rust, and Dr. Brent Ulrey, know a thing or two about travel, as they’ve earned degrees from several universities and conducted research throughout the nation.
For thousands of graduating college seniors each year, a degree doesn’t necessarily translate into a job. In some cases, it’s a matter of too many graduates and limited positions to be filled within that field, while in others the problem is rooted in choice of major. But for those emerging from the BME program at WNEU, it’s not a question of whether they will find a job, but which position they’ll choose.
Sometimes opportunities abound to the extent that graduates must first determine what field they’ll choose, then begin the process of applying for positions.
“Many of our graduates work for companies that make medical devices, and others are working for the government,” said Gettens, who earned his Ph.D. in biomedical engineering from Syracuse University and also served as an engineering officer in the U.S. Army. “They can also go to graduate school to do more research, or they can go to medical school. It depends on what interests them.”
Nationally, 20% of all BME students go on to medical school, according to WNEU’s statistics. But since the university offers a unique, six-year engineering/law program, many of its students have selected the two-for-one degree and backed up their knowledge of medical technology with legal education, a decision that opens many doors.
For WNEU seniors Hadiatou Barry and Dena Navarroli, it will soon be time to say goodbye to William H. Sleith Hall and begin their careers. Armed with advanced training that will serve them well in any field, it will surely be a bittersweet departure.
“I love it here — the professors are really down to earth; you have your fun moments and your serious moments,” said Barry, who is originally from New York City. “It’s the best of both worlds.”
Navarroli, who came to WNEU from Gilbert, Ariz., added, “I was really scared moving all the way from Arizona, but the professors have really supported me. They’ve been great, and they provide so many opportunities here that you can’t find anywhere else.”
For their senior design projects, Barry is researching quantum dot nanocarrier systems for targeted drug delivery, while Navarroli is working with a clinical sponsor on an innovative breast-cancer-surgery device. Both students have excelled in the BME program, and Barry is taking advantage of the rigorous six-year engineering/law opportunity. When she graduates, she’ll be able to choose between patent law and medical litigation if she selects a legal career, both of which are branches of law that require extensive knowledge of medical technology.
“It’s definitely been challenging, but this was my top choice, and it’s been a great experience,” she said.
Both Barry and Navarroli have bright futures ahead of them, as employment of biomedical engineers is expected to increase by nearly 30% by 2022, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In recent years, WNEU seniors have gone on to work for such major healthcare companies and institutions as Active Medical Devices, Covidien, St. Louis University, Cornell University, Respironics Novametrix LLC, and Microtest Laboratories Inc., among others.
Interests and specialties aside, WNEU’s BME students and professors were drawn together by a common passion — helping people in need.
Though many biomedical-engineering students throughout the nation may never operate on a single patient in their careers, the technologies they develop help doctors and nurses save countless lives. From advanced imaging systems to pioneering point-of-care devices, BME students situate themselves on the cutting edge of technology by studying thousands of applications and mechanisms during their college years. They also dedicate several hours each week to reviewing case studies and staying current on the latest research and literature pertaining to the constantly evolving field.
And the research is hardly limited to the students. With busy teaching schedules, professors sometimes struggle to find enough time to complete multiple research projects each semester.
“The faculty members have done a lot of research lately in micro- and nano-devices,” said Gettens, whose department recently received a $500,000 grant from Massachusetts Life Sciences. “Because the professors usually do 12 credit hours of teaching [per semester], trying to find time for research can definitely be a challenge.”
Gettens said the grant will allow for the purchase of equipment that facilitates micro- and nano-fabrication for medical devices. To outsiders, these words might as well be written in a different language, but for those immersed in the innovative, collaborative culture of biomedical engineering, the more complex the application, the more enthralling the endeavor.
And that explains why the program — and the job opportunities it creates — are both on the rise.