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By Krista Klinkhammer
When Jim Sweeney took a test in high school to gauge his career interests, he had to look up the profession recommended to him: biomedical engineer. The description piqued his interest enough to apply to a college that had such a program. Little did he know when he checked the “biomedical engineering” box during registration for his freshman year at Brown University that he was at the forefront of a discipline headed toward exponential growth over the next 40 years.
Biomedical engineering is a discipline within the broader field of bioengineering. At the time Sweeney entered college, only a handful of schools in the United States offered biomedical engineering or bioengineering degree programs. Technological and scientific advances contributed to establishing bioengineering as a formal discipline, and interdisciplinary collaboration fueled this growth. Given the broad nature of the field, bioengineering requires a solid foundation in engineering in addition to biological and life sciences. Successfully applying bioengineering to complex problems involves integrating these disciplines.
As Sweeney looks back from the vantage point of his position as head of the School of Chemical, Biological, and Environmental Engineering, he reflects on the significant impact bioengineering and biomedical engineering have had on medicine, healthcare, science, and engineering. Today, more than 130 accredited undergraduate programs in these disciplines exist. Even with an overall decline in private sector employment of 2.9 percent between 2001 and 2010, the United States bio-industry grew by 6.4 percent. Biomedical engineering tops Forbes’ 15 Most Valuable College Majors, and is projected to have a job growth rate of 61.7 percent. According to Forbes’ list of master’s degrees with the highest salary potential, biomedical engineering is tied for fifth place with electrical engineering.
At Oregon State, the undergraduate bioengineering degree program formally resides in the School of Chemical, Biological, and Environmental Engineering, but the field in general touches each school in the College of Engineering. V. John Mathews, who joined Oregon State as head of the School for Electrical Engineering and Computer Science in August 2015, seeks faculty who are not only experts in their respective fields, but will contribute to bioengineering research. “I have at least three faculty members in EECS who have joint appointments in departments with a bio-emphasis, and I think every faculty member could have a part to play in potential bioengineering collaborations,” he said.
Electrical engineers have long been involved in developing medical tools and technology, but when Mathews began his career, collaboration was lacking.
“When I started in academia, it was not easy for engineers and doctors to talk to each other,” he said. “Later, as technology, science, and medicine progressed, we realized that we had a lot to offer each other, and we started learning each other’s language. It was very clear that there was a lot we could do.”
As the power of collaboration was realized, developments began to emerge.
Mathews was first exposed to applying his electrical engineering background to medical applications when a doctor approached him asking for help in analyzing ultrasound data gathered from chick embryos.
“I started looking at the data, and things became interesting,” said Mathews. “We were able to find connections in the data that related to what the doctor was trying to explore.”
These connections led to discussions with a doctor of maternal fetal medicine, where further research brought about the development of tools for understanding the evolution of the placental circulation system and the relationships between maternal and fetal circulation systems. These tools include a system for early detection of preeclampsia, a disease that affects between six and eight percent of all pregnant women and is one of the major causes of maternal and fetal death.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the Whitaker Foundation was a catalyst for bioengineering growth nationally. Founded by U.A. Whitaker, a prominent mechanical engineer, electrical engineer, lawyer, and entrepreneur, the organization contributed more than $700 million to various academic institutions in support of interdisciplinary medical research, with a focus on bioengineering and biomedical engineering. In 1999, Oregon State benefited from the Whitaker Foundation’s generosity for the third time, when a three-year, $1 million grant allowed the creation of the undergraduate bioengineering degree program and the bioengineering education and research center.
Today, the College of Engineering strives to be a leader in bioengineering research and innovation, and to graduate engineers who will positively shape individual lives and the world. Bioengineering couples the problem-solving inherent to engineering with the humanitarian aspects of medicine and healthcare, making it an attractive option for students who want to create a better future.
“It’s a very ‘helping’ discipline, making it attractive to a more diverse student population, including women,” said Sweeney. “It’s a direct way to make an impact on the world and on others.”