New bioengineering major off to its first year

From its outset, Stanford sought to imbue the Bioengineering Department with the different but essential traditions of the School of Engineering and School of Medicine.

Ever since the schools of Engineering and of Medicine jointly created the Department of Bioengineering in 2002, the plan was to eventually offer a bachelor’s degree program alongside its master’s degree and PhD programs.

The Faculty Senate brought this plan to fruition during the last academic year by approving an undergraduate bioengineering major in perpetuity. Senate Chair Russell Berman, PhD, described the new major as a milestone in Stanford’s academic life.

“Not only does it address an exciting and growing field of knowledge at the interface of the life sciences and engineering,” said Berman, professor of comparative literature and of German. “It also is the first time that the School of Medicine, working together with the School of Engineering, has offered an undergraduate degree.”

Norbert Pelc, ScD, professor and chair of bioengineering, said approval of the major culminated years of effort by faculty, graduate students and pioneering undergraduates.

“We grew this department gradually around a core faculty and graduate program, and began testing our undergraduate curriculum in the 2009-10 academic year,” said Pelc, who is also a professor of radiology. “One of our challenges has been that bioengineering is such a broad field that we had to distill it down to the essential foundations.”

‘An excellent start’

Brad Osgood, PhD, a professor of electrical engineering, was senior associate dean for student affairs at the School of Engineering during the lead-up to senate approval. Osgood likened bioengineering to computer science: an important but rapidly evolving field in which it took some time for a foundational curriculum to come into focus.

“How we present new fields to undergraduates boiling over with energy, enthusiasm and intelligence is the question,” Osgood said. “I don’t think anyone would say that we have the one answer, but we’ve made an excellent start.”

Leading this effort has been Karl Deisseroth, MD, PhD, professor of bioengineering and of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, in his capacity as the department’s associate chair for undergraduate education.

“Joining the Bioengineering Department at Stanford shaped my whole career in a very positive way,” said Deisseroth, a noted researcher who pioneered optogenetics, which involves using laser light to activate or inhibit nerve-cell signals in animals.

“The opportunities created at the interface of biology and engineering are immense and only beginning to be capitalized on,” Deisseroth said. “I want to help create the same opportunities for undergraduates at Stanford that I enjoyed.”

Norbert Pelc

From its outset, Stanford sought to imbue the Bioengineering Department with the different but essential traditions of the School of Engineering and School of Medicine.

“Engineering brings problem-solvers and the medical school brings problem definition and some of the underlying science on which to build solutions,” said Jim Plummer, PhD, professor of electrical engineering.

Plummer was dean of the engineering school when the department was formed. He worked with Philip Pizzo, MD, former dean of the medical school, to bring about this faculty-inspired vision of a department anchored in both schools and grounded on a quantitative and systematic approach to solving problems not just in human health, but in the environment, industry and other areas.

“We had undergraduate education as a high priority from the outset but purposefully delayed it until we had achieved a critical mass of faculty, graduate and postdoctoral programs,” said Pizzo, professor of pediatrics and of microbiology and immunology. “With the initiation of an undergraduate major, bioengineering now moves from adolescence to adulthood.”

Teri Hankes, student services director for bioengineering, is eager to answer questions from prospective majors. “We’ve been working on this so long and now it’s a reality,” she said.

Enthusiasm welcomed

Approval of the major coincided with the department’s move to the Shriram Center for Bioengineering and Chemical Engineering, a recently constructed building on the Science and Engineering Quad.

“All of this came together to enable us to grow our educational program,” Pelc said, adding that undergraduates enrich the department with their ideas and enthusiasms.

“The more mature we get, the more we get encumbered by our preconceived ideas of what is doable and not doable,” Pelc said. “Undergraduates are free from that. They don’t know what they cannot do and therefore they are fearless.”

Maya Anjur-Dietrich, who graduated with the Class of 2015, voiced that same sentiment.

“Anything you want to do is probably part of bioengineering if you look hard enough,” she said. “I don’t think you should let yourself be limited by what other people have done because maybe they haven’t thought of what you wanted to do.”

Anjur-Dietrich was among the Stanford undergraduates who helped pioneer the major by pursuing a general degree in engineering with a concentration in bioengineering.

To be a bioengineer is to be a jack-of-all-trades.

“These students were our guinea pigs,” Pelc quipped. “They helped us refine and prove the curriculum.”

Another of these undergraduate pioneers, Evan Masutani, said bioengineers delve into chemistry, physics, biology, math, and computer science, giving them a profound respect for the experts in each field.

“To be a bioengineer is to be a jack-of-all-trades,” said Masutani, Class of 2014, who is now doing post-baccalaureate research with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

“Many of society’s biggest problems require interdisciplinary solutions,” he said, adding, “The realization that one is not an expert fosters a strong drive for collaboration.”

The breadth of the major, coupled with the need for depth, made for a strenuous program of study, but Rashmi Sharma, Class of 2014, said the department evolved a coping mechanism.

“We had a really tight community of students and teachers, and that helped us all get through,” said Sharma, now an associate engineer at Genentech.

Her classmate, John Pluvinage, also recalled those study sessions as high points of his undergraduate experience. Immersed now in the MD/PhD program at Stanford, Pluvinage predicted that future undergraduates will be reassured by the fact that the university has given the curriculum its official blessing.

“It will also be nice to have bioengineering on the diploma,” he said.

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