home :: features :: article

Bioengineers take flight

Students are making their mark in industry and graduate school.

Lehigh’s undergraduate bioengineering program is one of the university’s newest engineering majors and is quickly becoming one of its most popular.

Established in 2002 and accredited in 2008, the bioengineering program today enrolls more than 100 students. Alumni are enrolling in graduate school and taking jobs in the healthcare, biomedical, pharmaceutical, biomaterials and biotechnology industries.

The program seeks to prepare students for a field that is constantly changing, says its director, Anand Jagota.

“We are in the midst of a second wave of bioengineering, spurred by the maturation of the underlying cell and molecular biological sciences,” says Jagota. “Cells and biochemical pathways are well understood, which gives engineers and physical scientists the basic knowledge and building blocks to develop new technologies, therapies, diagnostics and materials.”

Bioactive glass used as a bone graft substitute.

Lehigh’s bioengineering students choose to specialize in one of three tracks. Biopharmaceutical engineering encompasses biochemistry and chemical engineering, exploring genomics, protein engineering, and drug synthesis and delivery. Bioelectronics/biophotonics emphasizes electrical engineering and physics with applications in biosensors, MEMs, biochips and optical technologies. Cell and tissue engineering straddles molecular and cell biology, materials science, mechanical engineering and electrical engineering.

Students are encouraged to take part in research projects and summer internships and are required to complete Lehigh’s award-winning Integrated Product Development (IPD) program, in which interdisciplinary teams of students make and market new products for industrial sponsors.

Matthew Havener ’06 was inspired by the bioengineering program to go into the field of biomaterials. Havener is now a research and development engineer for Orthovita, an orthobiologics and biosurgery company based in Malvern, Pa., that makes medical implants, synthetic bone grafts, surgical hemostats and bone cement, with a focus on orthopedics.

Havener does early development work for new materials and conducts the tests that are required to obtain FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) approval for new products. He recently helped develop a bone cement for vertebral compression fractures.

“The most beneficial part of Lehigh’s bioengineering program for me was the research project I did with Prof. Jagota,” says Havener. “It gave me something I could talk about passionately and intelligently in a job interview. It was also a lot of fun. As a result of this work, a paper I coauthored was published in Langmuir.”

Steven Henry’s research experience convinced the 2009 graduate to enroll in the University of Pennsylvania’s doctoral program in bioengineering. At Penn, Henry and his adviser are trying to better understand how the human T cell, a cornerstone of the body’s adaptive immune response, is able to navigate microenvironments.

At Lehigh, Henry worked with Profs. Richard Vinci and Walter Brown of the materials science and engineering department to investigate the mechanics involved in the puncture of a soft solid by a microneedle, which may one day be used to deliver drugs into patients with less pain than conventional hypodermic needles.

“This experience was invaluable in shaping my thought processes as a young scientist and giving me an appreciation for what it means to be an educator both inside and outside the classroom,” says Henry.

“My professors were instrumental in my decision to pursue my doctorate. I see myself working at the interface of both fields in a translational capacity, applying basic scientific principles to clinical or industrial ends or, conversely, using the needs of industry to motivate further fundamental research.”

Michelle Cremeans ’06 earned degrees in both bioengineering and integrated business and engineering (IBE) while participating in the IPD program and completing research projects. This variety of experiences helped her realize that, while bioengineering was a good theoretical match, dentistry would provide the greater human interaction that she desired.

Cremeans will graduate from Penn’s School of Dental Medicine in May and pursue a one-year residency before going into private practice and teaching at the university level.

“The research I did at Lehigh, both in the IPD program and in my summer internships, was a very valuable and eye-opening experience,” she says. “I was in the first class going through the bioengineering program and I think that the directors really let us have a say in how the classes were developed.

“The education that I received at Lehigh was amazing and I think that my critical thinking skills are far superior to those of some of my colleagues.”

Matthew Havener ’06 has helped Orthovita develop a bioactive composite material that facilitates human bone growth, along with a delivery system (above) that injects the material into the bone.

Ph.D. program has twin focus

As interest in bioengineering has grown, so too have graduate programs at leading institutions.