A joint department between the Medical School and College of Engineering — the first of its kind at Michigan — promises to accelerate the pace of biomedical engineering innovation…
…The joint BME department is a first for the U-M — one department that is part of two schools or colleges.
“It’s the first time this has been done at the University of Michigan, but there are about eight other universities with similar joint department structures between medicine and engineering,” says Douglas Noll, Ph.D., the Ann and Robert H. Lurie Professor of Biomedical Engineering and BME department chair.
“Advances in medicine increasingly are dependent upon engineering,” says James Woolliscroft, M.D. (Residency 1980), the Lyle C. Roll Professor of Medicine and dean of the U-M Medical School. “Similarly, engineering increasingly is moving into biological systems. And so it just seemed natural and appropriate to facilitate that interaction.”
“The Medical School is the College of Engineering’s largest research partner on campus,” adds David Munson Jr., Ph.D., the Robert J. Vlasic Dean of Engineering. “At any given time, we have a quarter-billion dollars in research contracts and grants underway. If we are working that closely together, we should be joined in a more formal way.”
Still, figuring out how to merge two academic units with different faculty cultures, financial models and tenure requirements was not easy.
The idea originated in 2005 during an external committee review of the College of Engineering’s Department of Biomedical Engineering. The committee’s report noted that joint departments worked for other universities, including the University of Washington, the University of Virginia and Johns Hopkins. Why not at the U-M?
Woolliscroft and Munson were sold on the idea from the beginning. But as Noll points out, “A lot of people had to have their say in this.” The deans appointed a faculty committee to study how other universities handled issues associated with this type of department structure and make recommendations on what would work best at U-M. Then an implementation committee was created to work out the details of how to handle budgets, funding, promotions, faculty appointments, tenure and a myriad of other issues. Executive faculty in the Medical School and BME faculty had to vote to accept the new structure. Then it had to be approved by the provost and the U-M Board of Regents. It took seven years to work through the process, but Woolliscroft maintains it was time well spent.
“We were setting precedent and it was important to think through all these issues very carefully,” Noll says. “Academic governance was a big part of this. The faculty had to be comfortable with the idea and that takes time.”
In an effort to develop more technologies that improve health care, the University of Michigan will establish a joint Department of Biomedical Engineering with footholds in its top-ranked College of Engineering and Medical School, in an action approved by the U-M Board of Regents at its July meeting. The change takes effect Sept. 1, 2012.
The department is currently housed in the College of Engineering, though its researchers regularly collaborate with medical doctors and a number of Medical School faculty hold joint appointments there. The change in academic structure is designed to bring biomedical engineering researchers closer to the patients their technologies aim to benefit, say leaders in both schools.
"As engineers, one of our goals is to invent and develop technologies that make a difference in society," said Douglas Noll, the Ann and Robert H. Lurie Professor of Biomedical Engineering and current department chair. "By linking ourselves in the Medical School, we will establish closer connections for our faculty and students to practicing clinicians and the health care system, which will allow us to better identify and translate our discoveries to medical care and to offer new educational opportunities for our students."
The Wallace H. Coulter Foundation along with the University of Michigan’s College of Engineering and the School of Medicine has enabled the creation of a $20 million endowment to enhance and support research directed at technologies promising progression towards commercial development and clinical practice.
"We are grateful to the Coulter Foundation for once again advancing biomedical engineering at Michigan. The university’s commitment to strengthening the economy includes seeing that our research moves from the laboratory to the marketplace, and this new endowment will help make that possible," said U-M President Mary Sue Coleman.
"This endowment from the Coulter Foundation will help to boost the burgeoning biotech industry in southeast Michigan, mainly because funding like this picks up where funding from the National Institute of Health (NIH) tends to leave off," said Douglas C. Noll, chair of Biomedical Engineering (BME). "Many companies need products that are closer to commercialization before they become interesting enough to attract outside investors, and the Coulter Program plays a unique role in advancing projects to that stage."