A Forty-Year Partnership

August 1, 2011
 
Going mobile

This year, as the Pratt School’s biomedical engineering department celebrates its fortieth anniversary, it is marking an extraordinary double partnership—between engineering and medicine, as well as between academe and engineering.

The partnership has been a fertile one. Besides advances in ultrasound research, the department’s researchers have developed new magnetic-resonance, X-ray, and nuclear-imaging techniques. And the department’s researchers are inventing new technologies for biomechanics, biomolecular and tissue engineering, electrobiology, and neuroengineering.

Says one of those researchers, Olaf von Ramm Ph.D. ’73, of the engineer-physician collaboration, “The developments that have come out of Duke really have been driven by a medical need, rather than some crazy idea of an engineer.”

The partnership has had a powerful educational impact, says Stephen Smith Ph.D. ’75. “I believe every one of my students has been successful in carrying the course of his or her research all the way from the original clinical problem to actually testing it out on a human or an animal study.”

The engineers’ other partnership—with industry—is exemplified by a display case festooned with dozens of old identification badges in the hallway of the ultrasound labs. Many of their owners are now high-level engineers at Siemens, Philips, GE, and other companies that maintain a close relationship with the department.

These partnerships give Duke bioengineers premier access to the latest machines, says Gregg Trahey Ph.D. ’85. “We can grab raw data and build custom features on these machines to make them excellent research tools. Our students also go out there and do internships, so they learn the systems in detail. And we have close contacts, so if we run into a roadblock, we can call the engineer who designed a particular circuit board to solve the problem.”

Of course, the benefits go both ways, say the engineers. The researchers’ scientific papers have proven rich fodder for industrial development, such as safety helmets for sports, new cancer drugs and treatments, and a better understanding of how Tasers used by law-enforcement officers can affect the heart.

–Dennis Meredith