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Home : Volume 30 : Fall 2003 :
New Chemical & Biological Engineering department name reflects increased scope

MRSEC research group

Biological research is increasingly carried out by interdisciplinary teams. This team, which includes Paul Nealey (top right) and Ana Teixeira (PhD 2003, lower right, now a postdoctoral researcher with the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm), is developing materials and fabrication methods for nanostructured surfaces that can be integrated into biological systems to direct and modulate the behavior of cells. (30K JPG)

For many, the term "chemical engineering" conjures up images of oil refineries and large chemical plants. But chemical engineers at UW-Madison and elsewhere are increasingly turning their attention to elaborate "chemical factories" whose volume can be measured in quadrillionths of a liter — living cells and other biological systems. As a result, UW-Madison's chemical engineering department which has been ranked among the top chemical engineering departments in the country for the better part of its 98-year history, has changed its name to Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering (CBE).

Today the majority of department faculty have some life sciences-based research projects and more than half of the department's current graduate students have thesis topics based on the engineering of biological systems. This trend is expected to continue, representing a permanent and important change in the scope of the field.

To better prepare students for this changing landscape, the department underwent a comprehensive, internal undergraduate curriculum evaluation. In addition to strengthening chemical engineering core courses, it was decided to add two life science requirements to the curriculum: a molecular biochemistry course and a cellular biology course. While individual students have chosen biological science electives for more than 50 years, faculty felt that it was time that all students acquire basic biological science literacy in order to understand the changes taking place in the life sciences and to be able to take advantage of the many opportunities these changes present to the chemical engineering profession.

In order to make this biological emphasis clear to students and their future employers, and to ensure credibility with granting agencies, industrial donors, and prospective faculty, faculty concluded that the department's name should change to accurately reflect actual educational and research activities.

"This change reflects a permanent increase in the scope of our discipline, and brings our name in line with the research and instructional programs of the department," says former department chair, Professor Jim Rawlings. "It will also increase the visibility of the department and the opportunities of our graduates in the biological sciences based industries.

The name Department of Chemical Engineering served the college well for almost 100 years. In 1899, the UW Board of Regents approved a new degree program in applied electrochemistry within the Department of Electrical Engineering, and in 1905, this program was incorporated into a new department with a broader agenda and the name: Department of Chemical Engineering.

During this period the department achieved international recognition for its teaching and research programs. For the last 40 years has been ranked in the top five departments of chemical engineering for both undergraduate and graduate programs.

Chemical engineering is a discipline with a unique focus on chemical transformations and the systems in which these transformations occur. However, for more than 50 years, the department has recognized that the engineering of biological systems is an important part of the field of chemical engineering. Early pioneers such as Professor Bob Marshall created research programs and joint degree programs with Biochemistry to provide the engineers for the industry at that time. One student from that period, John C. Garver (BS '46, MS '47, PhD '55), even became a faculty member in the UW Department of Biochemistry. This emphasis on biological engineering continued with the appointment of Professors Ed Lightfoot in 1953, Tom Massaro in 1971, and at least five additional faculty in the 1980s and 90s.

Furthermore, many other faculty developed collaborative research programs with colleagues in the life sciences, thus for some 50 years the department has had a strong biological engineering component. As a result, many PhD students now hold high positions in the biotech and pharmaceutical industry while others hold faculty positions as "bioengineering" specialists in chemical engineering, bioengineering, and other "bio" departments. With recent advances in the biological sciences, ever more of these chemical transformations are being engineered to take place in biological systems, with the result that the life sciences have joined chemistry as enabling sciences for the discipline.

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Date last modified: Monday, 10-Nov-2003 00:00:00 CST
Date created: 10-Nov-2003

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