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Bioengineering: A new program for a new millennium

As engineering and biology programs across the country come under fire for educating students for a bygone era, Binghamton University is launching a bioengineering program designed to teach students to solve the complex problems of the 21st century.

The University has recruited senior researcher Kenneth McLeod from SUNY Stony Brook to oversee the development of a bioengineering specialization within the Watson School of Engineering’s system science program that will eventually offer both undergraduate and graduate opportunities as well as a significant research component.

The new department, which is temporarily located on the ground floor of the library, is slated to find a home in the Innovative Technologies Complex on the eastern edge of the campus once renovation of the former NYSEG building is complete. Undergraduates will likely be admitted to the program for the first time next fall. Final approval from the State University of New York on the undergraduate program is expected by year’s end. Several graduate students, who worked with McLeod at Stony Brook, are expected to enroll in the Watson program.

McLeod has submitted a $1 million proposal to the Whitaker Foundation to jump start the program with support for additional faculty recruitment, development of innovative teaching laboratories, support for graduate students, and student recruitment and outreach activities. Word on the grant is expected next month. “This is a very unique situation and a unique opportunity,” McLeod said of his new post. “With a growing national consensus that engineering and biology education need to be completely redone at some point, here is Binghamton University basically giving me carte blanche to create a bioengineering department de novo. It’s like dying and going to heaven.

That’s the situation I’m in.” Provost Mary Ann Swain said the new bioengineering program offers students a special educational opportunity. “This program builds upon Binghamton’s strength in systems science by interweaving its content with that of strong analytic, mathematical and problem-solving skills in engineering and knowledge of living systems from biology,” she said. “Students will interact with faculty conducting research across a breadth of disciplinary and professional perspectives. We believe students will graduate with competencies necessary for success in a wide variety of positions that take an interdisciplinary approach to health care and product development.” Engineering education in the United States has remained essentially unchanged since 1946, suggests William Wulf, president of the National Academy of Engineering, in a recent article in Issues in Science and Technology.

A new report by the National Academy of Science likewise concludes that biology education in the United States is woefully behind the times, training students to function in the world of the 1960s rather than for the world of biotechnology. “It’s a serious problem,” agrees McLeod. As a senior researcher whose discoveries are helping to expand the knowledge base and the repertoire of practical solutions in such areas as cancer, osteoporosis, tissue engineering, and reparative and preventative medicine, McLeod ought to know. “We are educating our engineers for a manufacturing economy that no longer exists,” he said.

“When it comes to biology, across the United States, we’re basically telling students, ‘Let’s go out and observe animals in the forest, or find a novel gene.’ That’s great. It’s good to have a people who do observational science. But you can’t train the bulk of people as if that’s what they’re going to do. “An understanding of biology requires an understanding of complex systems, and that requires a strong foundation in the quantitative sciences.” McLeod said he came to Binghamton because he saw the potential to develop a program that provides students with the requisite systemic perspective. “In my view perhaps the most dangerous bioengineering program design would be one that required students to take two courses in mechanical engineering, two in electrical engineering, two in chemical engineering, two in computer science and then some biology,” McLeod said.

“Now they don’t know anything well, and potential employers will view the graduate as a dilettante.” McLeod wants students in the Binghamton program to gain the skills and the education they need to handle all that the 21st century has to throw at them. “They’re going to have great communication skills, great writing skills,” he said. ”They’re going to know how to tackle ill-defined problems. They’re going to be comfortable in the physical world, and they’re going to be comfortable in the world of biology, which is going to be very important in the future. “These people are really going to be the consummate problem solvers. That’s why I see this as the sine qua non major of the 21st century. Give me a job where the ability to solve ill-defined problems isn’t important. From the laboratory to the diplomatic corps, from industry to health care institutions, there is no such job.”

Starting from scratch with two full-time faculty — Craig Laramie, who specializes in genomic analysis, and Don Gause, a system engineer— and several adjuncts in his fledgling department, McLeod plans a program that will give students a biologist’s understanding of living systems and the problem-solving approach of engineers. Specially designed courses will introduce students to applications that extend from the molecular, to the tissue, organ and social system level, he said.

In the same way that electrical engineers understand electrical systems, mechanical engineers understand mechanical systems, and chemical engineers chemical interactions, bioengineers need a view of biology that allows them to look at the big picture and understand the rules of living systems so they can harness or change the rules when needed. Three of the basic rules of living systems sound simple enough, but evoke natural complexity, McLeod said. Biological systems are self-replicating, self-organizing and adaptive, all characteristics that are a far cry from traditional engineering disciplines, where human invention and intervention is a requisite.

The ability to see the big pictures painted by these basic rules is very different from the typical perspective of basic scientific research, McLeod noted. “Many people in medical and biological research are trained as scientists,” he said. ”They know how to investigate a problem. But the most pressing problems in medicine and society today are not scientific issues to be studied. They are things to be fixed. And when you want something fixed or improved you call an engineer, you don’t call a scientist.” In order for engineers to effectively address problems of biotechnology and medicine, however, they will also have to learn to think differently, he said. “We have very often tried to treat biological systems as if they are mechanical or electrical systems, and, of course, you can do that,” he said.

”I can start tugging on my skin and measure its elasticity. I can try to determine the force necessary to break my arm, see how joints flex and measure the torque it takes, but am I getting at the essence of the biology? Can I understand osteoporosis by breaking bones and seeing how some bones are weaker and some are stronger?” The traditional difference between scientists and engineers, McLeod said, is one that the BU bioengineering program will attempt to underscore and capitalize on. “Scientists tend to look for exceptions,” he said. ”They look for a very specific occurrence that they can study deeply because they see the importance of understanding exceptions. “Engineers invariably ignore exceptions. We throw them out. We step back and say ‘Can I understand the pattern here?’” McLeod said he wants Binghamton’s curriculum to help bioengineering students develop a critical understanding of basic engineering, a deep understanding of biology, and perhaps most importantly, the ability to step back and see the forest and the trees.

The clock is ticking on Kenneth McLeod.

Though apparently in good health, McLeod, who was recruited last summer to accomplish the de novo design, development and implementation of Binghamton’s new graduate and undergraduate bioengineering programs, has only about 10 years left to accomplish his goals here.

That’s because he subscribes to a life strategy he calls “The 15-Year-Plan.”

“Do something for 15 years and by then you’ve probably pushed out all your good ideas,” he explains. “What your brain really needs is a sea change. At that point, you could of course keep doing it. But if you don’t want to totally burn out, you’ve really got to force your brain to learn a whole new set of things and move on.”

Coming from McLeod, this is unquestionably “do-as-I-do” advice. Though he quite happily began his career as an electrical engineer in the automotive industry, he didn’t think twice about moving on when General Motors sent him to graduate school at MIT during the 1970s. GM was hoping to improve parts inspection by developing machines that could “see,” but it was McLeod who ended up with a new vision.

After suffering detached retinas as a child, along with the permanent loss of hearing in one ear from childhood mumps, McLeod thinks he was primed to have his interest piqued by the study of human physiology at MIT.

“At the time, the thinking was that in order to learn how to make machines that could ‘see,’ you’d have to study the human visual system. That philosophy has changed since then. But as it turned out for me, I got all caught up in the physiology, and I never did go back to industry.”

Instead, he began working to enhance his understanding of and expertise in the fields of physiology and medicine, without ever losing his training or perspective as an engineer. That meant obtaining his Ph.D. from MIT, going on to postdoctoral research at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston, and then advancing through a series of increasingly prestigious faculty appointments at SUNY Stony Brook’s School of Medicine and College of Engineering and Applied Sciences, before accepting the challenge of building a bioengineering program at Binghamton University. It’s a journey that has spanned the past 20 years and has made him a top researcher whose contributions are advancing research in a wide range of fields including cancer, osteoporosis, tissue engineering and preventative and reparative medicine.

“For 15 of those 20 years, I was very focused on being the typical scientist. As you know I was in a medical school, which essentially means there are thousands of faculty and only a few hundred students, so faculty basically teach a couple of hours a year and spend the rest of the time writing research grants, doing research, and publishing papers.” For the past five years, McLeod has committed much of his energy to redefining the future of engineering education in the United States, and his latest grant application was for about $1 million from the Whitaker Foundation for the development of a bioengineering program at Binghamton. Word on that proposal is expected next month. By his own calculation, that gives McLeod about 10 years before his supply of good ideas for bioengineering curriculum development are exhausted: He plans to make the most of it. He is determined to leave behind a legacy that will help Binghamton bioengineering students obtain the kind of education – at once focused and broad-based- that will prepare them to easily follow in his footsteps when it comes to professional sea change.

“I don’t want our students to live their lives feeling that they have to get a job and hold onto that job,” McLeod said, “because that is not the future.

“I don’t want to restrict them to some tiny skill set so that when that industry collapses, they don’t know what to do. I want them to know that because they are bold enough and confident enough to start from scratch, they have the ability to solve complex, ill-defined problems across the disciplines. That’s what engineers do. They come up with de nova designs that make the world we live in a better, safer place.”

Kenneth McLeod’s research interests are many.

Working with support from the National Institutes of Health, for instance, McLeod has discovered a way to study in vitro the formation of extracellular matrix molecules such as fibronectin and elastin, into fibers. With funding from Estee-Lauder, his laboratory is now trying to discover the mechanism by which UV inhibits normal elastin fiber formation and then try to develop ways to prevent it. This work on extracellular matrix formation could be most important for people of European descent who are living in equatorial climates. In Australia, for instance, skin cancer rates are over 50 percent among those of European descent, McLeod said.

Some other examples of McLeod’s many collaborative projects include:

Osteoporosis research looking at the mechanism of bone loss in peri- and post-menopausal women.

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