Grant-Funded Biomedical Engineering Network Boosts Student Collaboration

June 24, 2008 — One of the hallmarks of the Department of Biomedical Engineering at U.Va.'s School of Engineering and Applied Science is its emphasis on networks. A number of faculty members specialize in modeling the molecular interactions that enable cells to generate energy, to produce the thousands of proteins needed to sustain life, and to interact with their environment.

At the same time, the department is vitally committed to creating professional networks on a much larger scale. These networks — including faculty and students at universities around the world, researchers at multinational corporations and federal laboratories, venture capitalists and entrepreneurs — are designed to ensure that the emerging field of biomedical engineering will realize its potential to transform knowledge into innovations that will benefit humankind.

With a three-year, $600,000 National Science Foundation Partnerships for Innovation grant, the department has launched a new network to promote experiential education for bioengineering students globally. Organized around a newly launched Web site, www.bmeplanet.org, this new network is intended to give students around the world the opportunity to take part in hands-on research and, in particular, expose them to the principles of globally distributed design and upstream innovation. These two processes are considered essential to speeding the translation of research breakthroughs into useful products and services.

Over the last decade, multinational corporations, pulling together nodes of talent from around the world, have fostered globally distributed design as a way of promoting innovation. Educational institutions have lagged behind. "Students hardly ever have an immersive globally distributed design experience as part of their education," noted Thomas Skalak, chair of the biomedical engineering department and a co-investigator on the grant, along with Engineering School Dean James H. Aylor. "We are putting a mechanism in place that will make it possible for our students to collaborate on projects with students at other universities and take part in international corporate internship programs."

The bioengineering network will also give students exposure to upstream innovation, the idea that early interaction among all parties that play a role in the commercialization of a technology can help accelerate its development. Through www.bmeplanet.org, design teams will connect to partners from the sciences and engineering, medicine, business and law that will help them analyze the client needs and market potential of their projects from the start.

"Bioengineering is inherently interdisciplinary," said Skalak. "Early experiences with globally distributed design and upstream innovation are critical to creating young bioengineers who feel comfortable working across cultures as well as disciplines."

At the same time, these experiences help to forge long-lasting personal relationships that will sustain the field for decades. "In the final analysis, bmeplanet.org is a people-first process," Skalak said.

Reaction to this initiative has been enthusiastic. Already the bmeplanet.org has attracted participation from scores of universities, corporations, nonprofit societies and government organizations spanning six continents. Members of the network are working together to create multi-university design and research projects, international corporate internships and capstone incubators to nurture translational technologies.

As bmeplanet.org gains momentum, it will be possible for students at U.Va. to take a summer internship developing a new medical device with a high-tech firm in Milan or for researchers in Argentina to find collaborators in Thailand with the expertise they need to advance a project.

This global effort will have significant local impact. A segment of the funding from the Partnerships in Innovation grant is being used to fund corporate internships for U.Va. Engineering School students, and other universities in the network are encouraged to follow suit. It is also being used to invite speakers to come to U.Va. to speak to students on design and technology transfer issues. As the need arises, the department will incorporate Web 2.0 tools into bmeplanet.org to encourage open collaboration and even greater community.

— By Charlie Feigenoff