New Bioengineering Major culminated department’s evolution

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Stanford has added a permanent undergraduate training program to this new field “at the interface of life sciences and engineering.”

Ever since Stanford Engineering and Stanford Medicine joined together to create the Bioengineering Department in 2002, the ultimate plan was to begin with a Master’s and PhD program and eventually add an undergraduate major.

The Faculty Senate brought this plan to fruition during the last academic year by approving Bioengineering an undergraduate major in perpetuity. Faculty Senate President Russell Berman 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,” Berman said. “It also is the first time that the School of Medicine, working together with the School of Engineering, has offered an undergraduate degree.”

Current Bioengineering Department Chair Norbert Pelc inherited this goal from his predecessors, professors Scott Delp and Paul Yock, Russ Altman and Steve Quake, who served as successive co-chairs. Pelc said approval 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 to 2010 academic year,” Pelc said. “One of our challenges has been that bioengineering is such a broad field that we had to distill it down to the essential foundations.”

Brad Osgood, a professor of electrical engineering, was Senior Associate Dean for Student Affairs at Stanford Engineering during the lead up to Faculty Senate approval. Osgood likened bioengineering to computer science: important but rapidly evolving fields 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 department-wide effort has been Professor Karl Deisseroth in his capacity as 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 the field of optogenetics.

“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.”

From its outset Stanford sought to imbue the Bioengineering Department with the different but essential traditions of its antecedent schools of engineering and 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, the John Fluke Professor in Electrical Engineering.

Plummer was Dean of Stanford Engineering when the department was formed. He worked with former Dean of Stanford Medicine Philip Pizzo 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 environmental, industrial other realms of interest.

“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,” Pizzo said. “With the initiation of an undergraduate major, bioengineering now moves from adolescence to adulthood.”

Bioengineering Department Student Services Director Teri Hankes is eager to answer questions from prospective majors. “We’ve been working on this so long and now it’s a reality,” she said.

Approval of the major coincided with the department’s move into the Shriram Center whose outstanding facilities include the Uytengsu Teaching Center. 

“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 noted.  “Undergraduates are free from that. They don’t know what they cannot do and therefore they are fearless.”

Maya Anjur-Dietrich, who graduate in the Class of 2015 and studied bioengineering, 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 is among the Stanford undergraduates who helped pioneer the major by pursuing a general degree in engineering with a concentration in bioengineering.

“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 (NIAID).

“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 Stanford has given the curriculum its official blessing.

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

Last modified Thu, 22 Oct, 2015 at 14:51