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UMass Amherst Launches New Biomedical Engineering Department

AMHERST — The College of Engineering at UMass Amherst has established a new department of Biomedical Engineering, which will offer bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees. It is the fifth department within the college.

Biomedical engineering (BME) integrates engineering science, biology, and medicine into a cross-disciplinary field focused on improving human health and solving problems in the delivery of healthcare. Its key principle is that, by looking at the human body through the lens of engineering, one can apply the concepts of design, optimization, and programming to complex biological systems in order to detect, repair, and treat disease and to create diagnostic and therapeutic tools. 

The new program will be the core of biomedical-engineering research and teaching at UMass Amherst working within the College of Engineering and with the Institute of Applied Life Sciences. The institute was established in 2014 with $150 million from the Massachusetts Life Science Center and the university.

An example of current research in the new department has the potential to revolutionize new materials. The skulls and horns of male bighorn sheep undergo massive impact loads during ramming, suggesting their structure and material constituents have been evolutionarily adapted to sustain very large impact forces while preventing catastrophic failure and brain injury. In fact, it has been suggested that similar impacts in humans would be severely traumatic if not lethal.

The micro-architecture of the bighorn sheep skull and horns is being used to develop novel bio-inspired material designs for creating new lightweight, high-energy-absorbing materials. It is anticipated that the new materials could be used to fabricate a broad range of products, including athletic and military footwear, helmets and other protective gear, packaging and other protective devices such as cell-phone cases, and crashworthy military and civilian vehicle panels and components.

Timothy Anderson, dean of the College of Engineering, noted that adding the new department strengthens the college and promotes collaborative research and teaching across other disciplines on campus. “The close proximity to the biomedical and life-sciences industry in Boston makes the UMass Amherst BME program attractive to students across the nation. Additionally, the BME program is expected to draw a large number of female students into the College of Engineering. Close connections with the UMass Medical School in Worcester will provide excellent translational activities for both graduate and undergraduate students in the program.”

Professor Tammy Haut Donahue, the founding department head, will lead the emerging program. Her research work is in the area of analytical and experimental biomechanics with a focus on the musculoskeletal system. She comes to UMass Amherst from Colorado State University (CSU), where she was a professor and associate department head for undergraduate studies in the department of Mechanical Engineering. Haut Donahue was also a core faculty member in CSU’s School of Biomedical Engineering.

Also joining the department is professor Seth Donahue, whose research focuses on evolutionary biomechanics, tissue regeneration, and physiology. He taught previously at Colorado State University and Michigan Technological University. In 2007-08, he was an honorary research fellow at the Royal College of Surgeons and a visiting academic at Trinity College, both in Dublin, Ireland.

The college will eventually hire 12 full-time, tenure-track faculty members for the department by fall 2022.

Graduates of the Biomedical Engineering undergraduate-degree program will be prepared for a broad range of careers, including medical equipment design and manufacturing, scientific research and development services, pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing, and work with medical professionals.

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