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Engineering a Career In Medicine

By Deb Derrick

Michael Moore, '99, uses a multisizer in his biomaterials research at Mayo Graduate School.

Michael Moore had never heard of bioengineering when he started at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln in 1994. Now he’s a doctoral student at the Mayo Graduate School on track to a successful career in biomedical engineering—one of the hottest areas in today’s job market.

For “techies with a healing touch,” the future has never been so bright. Technological advances have led to an explosion of career opportunities as engineers of all ages apply their expertise to biological problems in research and in clinical practice. Moore represents a small but growing segment of students whose engineering education has led to exciting new directions in the field of medicine.

A 1994 graduate of Scottsbluff High School, Moore turned down other college acceptances to attend a school closer to home. He studied chemical engineering for the first year, then switched to biological systems engineering, graduating in 1999.
“I always liked science, and not having too much trouble with math, I decided to go into engineering,” he said.

In addition to a heavy course load, Moore took advantage of several research opportunities. After his sophomore year, he spent 10 weeks at Virginia Tech on National Science Foundation sponsored research in bioprocess engineering. Moore and other students worked on biological methods to turn cotton gin waste into xylitol, a sweetener. It was this experience that started him on the path to graduate school.

“We lived the life of graduate students,” Moore said. “It was the kind of experience I needed. Until that time, I’d only been in the classroom and hadn’t had much exposure to the outside world.”

Moore’s interests soon turned to biomedical engineering. As what for biomedical engineering is, Moore would be the first to tell you that it means different things to different people.

“It’s kind of a buzzword,” he said. “It’s different than traditional engineering, which is mostly involved with mechanics and electrical properties. We’re studying biological systems, particularly human systems, which are much more complex than other things like bridges and circuits.”

He researched graduate schools on the Internet. With sage advice from Biological Systems Engineering professors Rhonda Brand, David Jones and Glenn Hoffman, Moore added courses such as cell structure and function, human physiology and organic chemistry to his educational program.

During the school year, he worked part-time at the USDA Agricultural Research Service on NU’s East Campus, where he assisted agronomist Troy Weeks with genetic engineering research on wheat and sorghum. Moore also teamed with two other students on the design of the Dingman Mouth Gag, a device used for cleft palate surgery [see Contacts Summer 2000 issue]. And he found time to get married. His wife, Lisa (Miller), is a 1998 NU graduate in communications.

Moore applied to a number of graduate programs and landed at Mayo, internationally renowned for its medical facilities and medical research. He is one of six students in his matriculating class in their new biomedical engineering program. The program is very diverse, Moore said, with students specializing in areas such as biomechanics and biomedical imaging. He has another year of coursework left before his qualifying exams and will devote 2 to 3 years exclusively to research.

“I’d like to do research in tissue engineering, helping the body to regenerate or repair itself when injured or diseased. For example, researchers at MIT have developed a polymer material that could be used in skin grafts. There’s some exciting developments going on in this area,” he said.

Moore already has been working with Dr. Michael Yaszemski, an orthopedic surgeon with a chemical engineering doctorate from MIT, on tissue engineering research. Their focus is on using biomaterials “as sort of scaffolds” to promote tissue regeneration.

“The biomaterials provide structure and molecular cues that promote the cells to attach and start growing, proliferating and producing new tissue,” Moore said. “That’s been a big part of my research.”

In a prior lab rotation, Moore also worked with Dr. Anthony Windebank, a neurologist and dean of the medical school, on research using tiny spheres called microspheres for time-released drug delivery.

“We were working with a molecule that tends to slow the growth of glioblastoma cells, a type of brain cancer,” Moore said. “We were trying to encapsulate this molecule inside the microspheres for the purpose of slowly releasing it to treat the cancer.”

An accomplished pianist and saxophonist, Moore has put these interests — and aspirations to compose music — on the back burner. He and his wife are spending the winter in San Diego, where Moore is taking additional coursework at the University of California in subjects such as neuromuscular physiology and mechanics and transport phenomena.

After graduation, he hopes to do postdoctoral work and move into industry, although he would eventually like to teach and do research in academia. He said his engineering degree prepared him to be competitive with his fellow students, many of whom have engineering backgrounds.

“I learned how to learn,” he said, “and how to solve problems and look at problems from a design standpoint. These tools can be applied to many situations. An engineering education is an excellent foundation no matter where one ends up.”

He advises other students to get experience outside the classroom as he did. “Do a research project, or some kind of internship or co-op. If you’re only taking classes, you don’t know what you’ll be doing on a day-to-day basis after you graduate.”
And keep your eyes open, he said.

“As I’ve gone on and seen other programs, it has expanded my view of what’s available, even beyond my interests. There are so many areas where engineers can affect the medical community.

“Having all of us under the same roof is a plus. Engineers bring a certain point of view to the table. Working together with physicians and clinicians, our combined expertise will lead to interesting developments, not only in designing equipment but also in research. I’m continually amazed at the possibilities.” •

Exploring Medical Frontiers

From acoustics to epidemiology to biomechanics, opportunities for engineers in health sciences are abundant. Working with colleagues at the Mayo Clinic, University of Nebraska Medical Center and other institutions, alumni and faculty of the College of Engineering and Technology are developing new approaches to old problems.

Robert Throne, Electrical Engineering, is collaborating with UNMC cardiologist John Windle and Lorraine Olson, Mechanical Engineering, to study techniques for more accurate, less invasive measurement of the heart’s electrical patterns. Their work focuses on developing new mathematical techniques to approach inverse problems in electrocardiography.

Inverse problems are concerned with determining causes (inputs) based on measurement of effects (outputs). For example, electrical potentials on the outer heart surface are traditionally estimated using measurements from sensors placed on the body surface. The research team believes that data fusion techniques — systematically combining signals from multiple sensors, types of sensors and sensor locations — may produce a more accurate picture of electrical activity on the heart.

“Knowledge of how electrical potential patterns on the heart surfaces evolve over time can be an extremely valuable tool in the diagnosis and treatment of a wide variety of cardiovascular diseases,” Throne says.

Bill Dailey, Chemical Engineering, is in his first year of a family practice residency at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. Dailey had a lifelong goal of becoming a doctor but did a stint in the Navy before going back to school. At NU, he worked part-time at the VA Hospital and conducted biodiesel research with Hossein Noureddini. Dailey aims to practice in a small city or town in Nebraska.

Y.C. Pao, Engineering Mechanics, has conducted biomedical research with Mayo Clinic’s Biodynamics Research Laboratory since 1974. Pao has used engineering tools such as finite element modeling to study cardiopulmonary dynamics, coronary artery tree motion and plaque build-up in coronary arteries. The research team has received funding from the National Institutes of Health and has developed a customized package of finite element programs for use in their research.

Pao’s work also includes collaboration with the University of Nebraska Medical Center on bone research and biomechanical applications in the field of dentistry, including the reconstruction of teeth with composite materials.

Rhonda Brand, Biological Systems Engineering, came to NU with her master’s and doctoral degrees in bioengineering from the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. She did a postdoctoral fellowship in pharmaceutics at UC-San Francisco and was a faculty member at the University of Nebraska Medical Center for three years. Her bioengineering research interests include absorption of chemicals into the body through the skin. She researches penetration of potential therapeutic agents and harmful environmental chemicals, and examines the cellular effects of these chemicals after they have entered the body.

Lily Wang, Architectural Engineering, is exploring research possibilities in acoustics and hearing impairment with clinicians at Girls and Boys Town in Omaha. Her work could lead to studies that measure perceptions, by hearing and hearing-impaired populations, of acoustical qualities in a room. Better acoustical design in classrooms, for example, may mitigate the impact of hearing impairments and associated learning disabilities. Wang says,“Working together, there are so many opportunities in research and development of new applications.”