Two Senior Hires and a New Assistant Professor Add Depth that Spans Barriers
The field of biomedical engineering—which itself is a hybrid of disciplines—calls for a unique blend of skills.
“Expertise that crosses broad areas is so important, because that’s where you have huge impact,” says Fred Epstein, professor of biomedical engineering and radiology and chair of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Virginia. “Everyone talks about collaboration in team science and cross-disciplinary work, but it’s a rare skill set. A really good biomedical engineer can engage in engineering with the engineering faculty and biology with the biosciences faculty.”
The BME department at UVA is undergoing a 10-plus-year program to build strength in three key areas: systems biology and biomedical data sciences, medical imaging, and cell and tissue engineering. “We aim to be among the best in the nation in all three areas,” Epstein says.
Doing so requires adding researchers with the ability to address questions that cross disciplines as well as challenges that cross between tissue systems. Three such key faculty members were recruited this fall. Two are internationally renowned experts in their fields, and one is just starting on the tenure track.
GUSTAVO ROHDE: SO MANY PROJECTS
Recent breakthroughs in diagnostics leave the medical field awash in data. Associate Professor Gustavo Kunde Rohde joins the BME faculty at UVA from Carnegie Mellon University, with a deep background in data science and a commitment to turn raw information into rich insights. In his joint appointment with the department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Rohde focuses his research on building computational models that will complement traditional methods of interpreting medical images.
Almost no researcher can have complete depth in more than one area, Epstein says. The real key to effective expansion of the UVA BME team is to find the “best recruitable athletes” in key areas, avoiding jack-of-all-trades claims in favor of people who, having mastered one area, do the hard work to truly understand other disciplines.
Rohde, for example, has spent much of the last eight years working alongside people in cell biology, pathology and radiology—all with the goal of better understanding fundamental processes outside of his original academic emphasis.
“The vast majority of computer engineers cannot have an in-depth conversation with a pathologist, but Gustavo can,” Epstein says. “He applies image processing and signal analysis, and integrates the imaging information with all the genomic and other information to better understand what is happening with patients.”
As medical images have been digitized in recent years, the switch from analog to digital format has revolutionized the storage and transmission of images for diagnosis and treatment. Trained radiologists examine the images using long-proven methods. But the digital format has opened up another area of inquiry.
Sophisticated analysis of terabytes of imaging data could yield insights unavailable to the human eye. The long-term goal, Rohde says, is to build computational models that provide diagnoses and prognoses that might be elusive to a single approach. His work has already developed algorithms for mining image and signal databases to look for subtle differences between diseased and healthy tissues.
Future work will transform that data into predictive frameworks, leading to diagnostics that are more accurate, less costly or both. For example, one technique under development could lead to earlier diagnosis of melanoma without needing a biopsy.
“The chances of making a serious mark are pretty high.”
With “so many projects,” Rohde and his lab are mapping out potential work, planning to serve as a synergetic bridge between units throughout the schools of engineering and medicine.
“The chances of making a serious mark are pretty high.”
TOM BARKER: IT FELT LIKE HOME
When Professor Tom Barker visited UVA to give a talk in 2015, his seminar was better attended than any session he had given at any university, including his own Georgia Tech.
Almost immediately, he began building connections with BME faculty at UVA.
“With a few weeks, we had already sketched out interesting research projects, potential grant application, papers that could be written,” Barker says.
Actually, his UVA connections go further back: Barker’s Ph.D. thesis was formed out of work that originated at the University. So when an appropriate position opened at UVA a year after that initial seminar, the transition was a natural one.
“Before I left my interview, I felt like this place was home.”
Barker’s ongoing research focuses on attacking the problem of fibrosis, where the body fails to “turn off” scarring that is essential following an injury such as a heart attack. Fibrosis can occur in multiple systems within the body. If the challenge crosses between systems, Barker says, so must the solution.
“I’m a ‘lung guy,’” he says, “but I’m going to a ‘cardio-heavy’ university because we have a powerful team of faculty and researchers who are taking on the problem of fibrosis holistically. What are the rules of fibrosis that may not be organ-specific? That opens the possibilities of drugs that will work in different contexts.”
“Tom Barker is building on our strength in cell and tissue engineering and regenerative medicine,” Epstein says. “Tom does bioengineering, but he really starts with biology. Fundamental expertise in fibrosis can have a big impact because fibrosis affects so many diseases.”
Even with a strong background in the laboratory, Barker says he was drawn to UVA in part because of its depth in computational biology.
One scientist cannot answer all the questions, Barker points out. “In my opinion,” he adds, “what UVA Biomedical Engineering does better than any other program is to have strong computational scientists who are also extremely strong experimental researchers. They are capable of actually doing the experiments to generate those numbers. That is the key to moving biomedical engineering forward.”
STEVEN CALIARI: CRITICAL MASS
Recruited from his postdoc at the University of Pennsylvania as a joint appointment with the department of Chemical Engineering, Assistant Professor Steven Caliari brings an emphasis on biomaterials to a faculty already deep in cell and tissue engineering expertise. A commitment to blur the boundaries between departments is essential to progress.
“For any type of biomaterials research, there is an interdisciplinary slant,” Epstein says. ”I think we are at that critical mass of people who have experience in biomaterials. This is a place where that can be a great strength.”
Caliari’s research focus includes developing materials derived from natural polymers that more realistically emulate the natural microenvironments cells reside in, allowing medical researchers to explore when cells react to that environment. “We are trying to better understand what makes healthy cells decide to ‘go rogue’ and, for example, become cancerous,” Caliari says.
One application of Caliari’s research will help lead to healing from surgeries for muscle injuries. While traditional approaches provide some functional restoration by joining together injured tissue, the result is permanent scarring. Caliari is working to develop materials that can serve as a temporary scaffold while taking advantage of the body’s intrinsic healing ability.
“With biomedical engineering,” Caliari says, “it’s important to get people with different backgrounds, different areas of expertise, different skills together, because that’s how you make progress toward these grand human health challenges.”
THE SKY’S THE LIMIT
Neither of the BME departments that Barker and Rohde came from had an on-site medical school; both relied on partnerships with other universities to access hospitals and clinicians. At UVA, however—as was the case for Caliari’s experience at Penn—schools of medicine and engineering are a short walk away from each other. That’s unusual, Epstein says, because states have often located engineering and medical schools on different campuses.
“UVA has a solid presence in fundamental scientific disciplines—a great medical school combined with a BME department playing a bridge role to other disciplines,” Rohde says.
The ability to cross disciplines and exploit synergies in the laboratory depends on a culture that does the same across Grounds. Epstein credits the cooperative commitment of the deans of the medical and engineering schools as well as the support and vision of UVA president Theresa Sullivan, who has long emphasized cross-disciplinary research.
The faculty depth, mix of disciplines and access to clinicians at UVA present opportunities to cross over from inquiry to treatment, translating research progress from the bench to the bedside.
“As biomedical engineers, we are tasked not just with understanding phenomenon, but also trying to make health care better,” Barker says. “I feel compelled to create technologies or develop methodologies that will help patient outcomes.
“The sky’s the limit here.”