Biology and engineering at UW-Madison: A student's landscape
Andrew Wentland is a BME senior at UW-Madison. Next year he hopes to enter an MD/PhD program, emphasizing MRI and medical imaging in his PhD work.
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W-Madisonís major in biomedical engineering (BME) is one of the most sought after undergraduate degrees, not only in the college of engineering, but among all sciences. In freshman orientation, students are advised that only 45 students are admitted into the program each year. The students not
deterred by the warning still result in 250 percent of the number of applications per student admitted.
Why are so many students attracted to
UW-Madison's degree in biomedical engineering?
When UW-Madison's faculty began to form the BME curriculum, they included all of the foundational classes that an engineer would take — statics, dynamics, circuits — but also all of the foundational classes of a biologist — biology, physiology, and organic chemistry. Upon completing
these numerous core classes, students would need to take the core classes of biomedical engineering, namely biomechanics, bioinstrumentation,
and biomaterials. Each student would be allowed to emphasize a certain field in biomedical engineering, taking four additional classes in categories
like biomechanics, medical imaging and bioinstrumentation. These courses still provided a fairly broad background. How could the faculty adequately prepare students for medical school, graduate school, or a career in industry?
The answer? Design. Through a mere six percent of the total number of credit hours in the undergraduate BME curriculum, every student would take six semesters of biomedical engineering
design. Don't be misled by the paucity
of this percentage. With five of the six classes being a single credit hour and the sixth being three credit hours of capstone design, sophomores, juniors and seniors work directly with medical doctors, nurses, graduate students, PhDs and engineers from the medical industry. These clients provide projects in every imaginable category of biomedical engineering, from combining biomechanics and gastroenterology to biomaterials and surgery. Inherently, these classes are much more valuable than the number of credits they provide, including the chance to work in teams, to experience real world problems, to interact with medical professionals, to practice presentation and writing skills, and to work with proposals and funding.
Biomedical engineering design lends itself to three years of rigorous training, with students challenged
in advanced problems while learning how to design and becoming well qualified for careers in the medical industry. However, six semesters of design “was even better than envisioned, because students started learning how to learn and the projects started helping students define where they were going with their careers,” says Professor Robert G. Radwin, founding chair of the department. Design became “a new way to learn.” With these projects beginning in the undergraduate's sophomore year, design influenced students to take courses suggestive of the projects they worked on, and as a result, the projects helped define students' careers.
An estimated 75 percent of students entering BME start out as pre-med. Most of the remaining students
tend toward graduate school. But with all the interaction the design courses provide, many of these students change their minds. Some of the students enjoy design to such a level that they apply for industry upon graduation. A few of the pre-med students, having worked with medical doctors in numerous fields through the design courses, decide that graduate school is right for them; and vice versa for the students intending to enter graduate school. By the time they graduate, only 25 percent of students are bound for medical school.
The design courses help students use their engineering knowledge to design something of clinical relevance. “If students are interested in learning how an engineering approach can be used to understand
something more fundamental about cells and tissues, a new certificate program may be just the ticket,” says Assistant Professor
who helped to establish a Biology in Engineering certificate (UW-Madison's equivalent to a minor) that will expose engineering students to the ways in which engineering has and can contribute to problems in biology. The certificate is not just for students majoring in BME, but for any student in the College of Engineering.
Biomedical engineering encompasses all aspects of biology and engineering, whether that is engineering for direct medical application,
or fundamental biological research, such as Assistant Professor
William Murphy's, whose work focuses on developing materials
to instruct stem cells. “Many of the most intriguing problems in biology exist in medicine,” says Murphy. From a student's perspective, coursework emphasizes the former —
clinical relevance in mind. Nevertheless, the department of biomedical engineering offers a program named Honors in Research, which allows any undergraduate student in the department to work on biomedical/biological research for a minimum of three semesters. This research can be done with any professor in biomedical engineering or any professor
associated with the department. Those professors cross-listed in the department
range from radiology, oncology, rehabilitation medicine, physiology,
and all of the departments in the College of Engineering. Therefore, a student
in BME not only works on clinical
problems in the design courses, but
can also work in biological research.
Regardless of the options a student chooses, BME students are allowed to explore the terrain and determine their involvement
in medicine, biology and engineering,
whether that is going to medical school, graduate school or industry.
By Andrew L. Wentland — Excerpted from the October 2005 issue of BioTECH, an MIT BMES newsletter.