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    Bioengineering Programs: The Next Big Thing?

    ayeeshik kole
    Ayeeshik Kole is an MD-PhD candidate in the Medical Scientist Training Program, a joint venture between the Indiana University School of Medicine and the Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering at Purdue University.

    “I find myself looking at things in a slightly different way,” said Ayeeshik Kole, an MD-PhD candidate in the Indiana University (IU) Medical Scientist Training Program. As a student/trainee in a joint venture between the IU School of Medicine and the Purdue University Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering, Kole is learning to balance the demands of traditional clinical medical training with the science, analysis, and design requirements of biomedical engineering.

    IU’s eight-year MD-PhD program includes four years of dissertation-specific coursework, research, and device development plus standard medical school curriculum and rotations. “In addition to learning about heart disease,” Kole explained. “I am working to create a device to better see inside the arteries of the heart” to improve diagnosis and collect research data.

    Bioengineering has been around in some form since 1895, starting with the invention of the X-ray. And well into the last century, both the Mayo Clinic and Vanderbilt University used the services of engineers to create devices that provided assistance and relief to patients.

    “People see what I do and are very curious about it,” said Kole. “There are only a handful of us around.” According to those in the field, however, that is about to change.

    Today, bioengineering is exploding with new data, devices, and applications. The demand for people with the required combination of medical and engineering skills is escalating as well. Among the many new programs being created are 10 new university curricula resulting from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute–National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB) Interface program.

    One of the challenges of these cutting-edge curricula is the integration of medicine and engineering, which requires robust translational skills. “Medical education needs to incorporate more math and physics, while engineering education should include physiology and other medical sciences,” said Roderic Pettigrew, PhD, MD, director of the NIBIB at the National Institutes of Health. “This way, physicians will be comfortable using new technologies and engineering approaches to benefit their patients, and engineers will understand the unmet clinical needs and design effective solutions.”

    Katherine Banks, PhD, MSE, dean of the College of Engineering at Texas A&M University would agree. “Engineers are often told to focus more on critical thinking, while physicians are expected to know many things by rote. We’re looking for a balance in both types of reasoning,” she said in regard to recruiting students for the Engineering Medical School (EnMed) that Texas A&M is establishing at Houston Methodist Hospital.

    Bioengineering programs are an expanding frontier

    Bioengineering applications such as brain–computer interfaces, nanotechnology to deliver targeted chemotherapy, and engineered biomaterials to stimulate nerve growth are among the expanding frontiers of the medical, residency, and PhD training at Mayo Medical School and Mayo Clinic.

    “It’s important that we provide bioengineering and other scientific and technological expanded curricula and dual-degree programs for our students so they can continue to advance science and evolve patient care,” said Fredric Meyer, MD, the executive dean for education at Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and dean of Mayo Medical School. “We’re continuing to pursue new collaborations within and outside of Mayo Clinic to accomplish this.”

    Mayo offers a four-year Science of Health Care Delivery (SHCD) curriculum, jointly developed with Arizona State University (ASU). The school receives more than 4,700 applications each year for 50 student slots at Mayo and 50 more that will be available at ASU in 2017. Health systems management, bioinformatics, population health, and patient care are all part of the curriculum. Students graduate with a medical degree and an SHCD certificate. They have the option of pursuing a master’s degree in SHCD from ASU as well.

    “Engineers are often told to focus more on critical thinking, while physicians are expected to know many things by rote. We’re looking for a balance in both types of reasoning.”

    Katherine Banks, PhD, MSE
    College of Engineering at Texas A&M University

    Several other bioengineering programs have launched recently or are on the horizon. In 2016, Vanderbilt University School of Medicine instituted a four-year Medical Innovators Development Program (MIDP) tailored to engineers and applied scientists. The PhD-to-MD program emphasizes both math and problem solving, drawing on faculty from Vanderbilt’s medical, engineering, and business schools. Students may also receive specific training in laparoscopic and virtual reality techniques, which require a different type of hand–eye coordination than traditional surgery, said Duco Jansen, PhD, professor and interim chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering and Neurological Surgery and associate dean for graduate education at Vanderbilt.

    The Texas A&M EnMed program is expected to open officially at Houston Methodist in the fall of 2017. “We are looking for students with engineering and computer science degrees,” said Banks. This will give them a leg up in developing medicine-related applications, she explained, including artificial intelligence, sensor optimization for wearable devices, cybersecurity for health care records, and the creation and administration of pharmaceuticals. A consultant will be on site to evaluate the feasibility of ideas, and students will be able to use 3D printers and sensor technology to create prototypes, allowing for immediate and practical evaluation of devices and ideas.

    Rather than a program or track, Carle Illinois College of Medicine, scheduled to launch in 2018, is setting itself apart as the first engineering-based college of medicine. Carle Health System and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign are partnering to train “a new kind of doctor” who will learn engineering principles and the quantitative sciences as well as clinical and basic medical sciences. “We are taking aim at the intersection of science and engineering,” said inaugural dean King Li, MD, MBA. Along with device and drug development and broad-based research, he said, “we plan on harnessing big data and informatics to move research more efficiently and quickly from bench to bedside.” Among the goals: to cut costs and improve outcomes for a global and aging population.

    What’s ahead in bioengineering education? Maureen Harrington, PhD, codirector of the Medical Scientist Training Program at IU said schools are casting a net for broader academic diversity, including people who can work well with others from different fields and walks of life. “We need physician-engineers who are not only open to new things but also willing to work collaboratively,” she said.