Biomedical Engineering Celebrates 30 Years

November 13, 2001

By Monte Basgall

The Pratt School of Engineering's Department of Biomedical Engineering (BME) turned 30 this year with a burgeoning faculty and student body and a national ranking of second-best in U.S. News & World Report's latest assessment of programs offering BME doctoral degrees.

Those who've watched its early development, as well as newcomers who long knew it by reputation, say the department's fortunes have benefitted from location, early enlightened leadership, an interdisciplinary spirit, a respect for the research potential of both graduate and undergraduate students and good timing.

"Duke, in a general way, has been very strong in medicine and biology," said Roger Barr, a BME professor who uses computers to study the electrophysiology of the heart. "So when the biomedical engineering train got on the track in the United States, people here saw right away there was an opportunity for Duke."

Barr is a former BME chairman who studied for his doctorate under Theo Pilkington, the department's legendary founder, who died in 1993 at the age of 57. Biomedical engineering's roots date back only to the 1950s and later, Barr notes.

"Especially in the late 60s, people in the United States really started to get seriously interested in engineering as applied to biology and medicine," he said in an interview.

"A big factor was that measurement techniques had become more precise. Computers began to make it possible to do the level of calculations and the detail you had to have. And transistors began to make it possible to make things that were small.

"All of a sudden it became possible to work in a serious engineering sense on things that existed in biology. Traditional engineering was cars and steel mills and trains and other things that are physically big. So this was a big change in the size scale."

Pilkington received his engineering Ph.D. from Duke like Barr, and both used computers and mathematics to study the heart's electrical activity. By the end of the 60's Pilkington was heading a biomedical engineering program in Duke's electrical engineering department. Then in 1971, biomedical engineering became its own department, with Pilkington as its first chairman.

Olaf von Ramm, who himself went on to become an international figure in ultrasound research, arrived the previous year from the University of Toronto as a graduate student to work under another ultrasound pioneer, Frederick Thurstone.

"I suffered from culture shock," von Ramm recalled. Graduate students' non-air conditioned labs were then in the Old Chemistry Building, where he said temperatures reached "110 degrees" in the summertime.

"Duke was still a small Southern university in 1970, but I came because of the people," he added.

A coterie of major players in biomedical engineering was already gathering there. One was Pilkington himself, whom von Ramm described as "one of the best recruiters and judges of what people could do that I ever met."

Pilkington went on to found and lead another pioneering Duke-based program: an Engineering Research Center for Emerging Cardiovascular Technologies, funded by the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health, as well as by industrial affiliates.

There was also von Ramm's mentor Thurstone, electrobiology pioneer Robert Plonsey, neurobiology pioneer Howard Wachtel, and chemist Howard Clark, whose interests were blood cells, biomaterials and artificial organs.

Those were soon joined by others like James McElheney, who did groundbreaking work on the effects of impacts on human tissue as well as how amputees can learn to walk with artificial legs. Another was Evan Evans, who became world renowned for work in cellular mechanics.

In 1972, Duke's BME department became the nation's first to have an accredited undergraduate program. The department as a whole moved from Old Chemistry to the Engineering Annex. And Wachtel obtained a National Science Foundation grant to support and expand undergraduate laboratory facilities.

The engineering program received both encouragement and financial support from Duke Medical Center under the leadership of Chancellor Emeritus William Anlyan when he was vice president for health affairs. With engineering and medical schools in such close proximity, collaborations evolved naturally.

An education in BME is "inherently cross-disciplinary," said Barr. Looking out a window in Hudson Hall, he pointed across Research Drive at the medical center's sprawling complex of labs and clinics. "A student who is in this building at 9 a.m. is across the street at 10 a.m. At 11 a.m. they're back over here."

Also, "Duke BME was organized first as a research activity, second as a graduate program, and then third as an undergraduate program.

The first undergraduate activities were individual students who came to work with undergraduate students and faculty on research projects.

Today, "it's really the case that the undergraduate program blends into the graduate program," Barr continued. "We do not distinguish." In keeping with that tradition, today more than two-thirds of BME's undergraduates are involved in independent research projects.

All-in-all, "this is not a program that was ever in a position to say, 'We'll just copy what MIT did, or we'll copy what Texas did'," Barr said. "Because we were doing it before those places."

Wachtel and Evans have since left Duke. But additional faculty have advanced BME's research reach in areas like soft tissue mechanics, drug and gene delivery, tissue engineering, protein and molecular surface engineering, and computational electrophysiology of heart muscle and nerve cells.

"The reputation of this department is just peerless, so it's not like the department is not in a place it ought to be now and has to be fixed," said Morton Friedman, who arrived at Duke BME from Ohio State University last February to become its new chairman.

It will nevertheless be his task to guide BME's further expansion. The department has been authorized eight additional tenure-track faculty over the next three years, which would increase the total to 25. Friedman himself, a distinguished researcher in the fluid mechanics of blood flow and the development of vascular diseases like atherosclerosis, was the first new hire. Where to go from here "is really a matter of starting with our strengths and reformatting and enlarging them to take advantage of new opportunities," he said.

One targeted growth area is biophotonics, applications of light in biology and medicine, which dovetails with a separate major Pratt School addition, the Fitzpatrick Center for Photonics and Communications Systems.

A second is expanded initiatives in BME's existing strong research program in cardiovascular engineering. "We are across the street from one of the strongest cardiology departments in the country," he noted.

"This is an area where I think we should really be recognized as the best," Friedman said.

He also foresees new directions in what he called "therapeutic bioengineering." That's using engineering principles to "optimize therapies," he said. Examples might be new mechanisms to deliver drugs or gene products precisely where they are needed in the body. Meanwhile, BME now has the largest number of graduate students ever at more than 100, plus about 400 undergraduates "if you include the freshmen and sophomores who have declared or indicated an intention to declare BME as their major," Friedman added. "One of the things that is the greatest concern right now is space."

Waiting in the wings is a possible solution, a proposed new two-building Center for Interdisciplinary Engineering and Applied Sciences that would support biomedical engineering and two other Pratt school areas targeted for growth: photonics and communications, and materials science and materials systems engineering.