Merging complementary minds

Understanding everything there is to know about biomedical engineering is virtually impossible.

No one knows that more than Nancy Allbritton, who has chaired the joint Department of Biomedical Engineering (BME) at Carolina and N.C. State since 2009.

“I am old enough that biomedical engineering did not exist when I was in college,” said Allbritton, who earned a physics degree from Louisiana State University before pursuing a medical degree from Johns Hopkins and a Ph.D. from MIT in medical engineering and physics.

Later, at Stanford, she completed postdoctoral research “at the interface of cell biology and analytical chemistry.”

Almost by accident, she said, her academic path was circling a multidisciplinary field of inquiry she knew nothing about until 2004. That’s when she became a founding member of the biomedical engineering department at the University of California, Irvine.

She left California in 2007 to join Carolina’s chemistry department before she was tapped to lead BME two years later.

In the last five years, she has learned how much she still doesn’t know about BME – and really can’t know alone. And that is the lesson she is driving home at Carolina and N.C. State.

“We do not know yet how much we need each other,” she said.

An amiable merger

Several years ago, MIT produced a white paper that delineated a new research model – convergence – that draws on an ongoing merger of life sciences, physical sciences and engineering.

It is within that area of convergence, Allbritton said, that the BME program operates. Moreover, during the past decade, a plethora of new interdisciplinary research has emerged – bioinformatics, computational biology and tissue engineering – requiring not simply collaboration between disciplines, but true disciplinary integration.

But in the case of bioengineering, there was a problem, Allbritton said.

Few universities have both medical schools and engineering schools to make this disciplinary integration work – the reason so many joint biomedical engineering programs sprang up across the country: in Atlanta, between Emory University and Georgia Tech; in the San Francisco Bay area, between UC-San Francisco and UC-Berkeley; in Virginia and North Carolina, between Wake Forest and Virginia Tech.

And in the Triangle, between Carolina and N.C. State. (Duke University, which has both medical and engineering schools, has its own biomedical engineering program.)

“When two universities are complementary, it makes sense to build a bridge between the two rather than try to duplicate one or the other,” Allbritton said. “State is one of the biggest engineering schools in the country, and there is an amazing level of excellence within that school that we could never replicate at Carolina. And the reciprocal is true for State regarding our tremendous School of Medicine.”

Frances Ligler, left, and Nancy Allbritton watch as research assistants make adjustments on a bionic left at the biomedical engineering lab and NC State University.

Frances Ligler, left, and Nancy Allbritton watch as research assistants make adjustments on a bionic left at the N.C. State University biomedical engineering lab.

There are other schools and departments that have been drawn into this field of convergence as well, from N.C. State’s colleges of textiles and veterinary medicine to Carolina’s College of Arts and Sciences and the schools of pharmacy, public health and nursing.

“These two universities are so complementary, it is amazing,” Allbritton said. “There should really be a ton of collaborative projects between the two universities. BME should be one of many, not the only one.”

Joe DeSimone, who has joint appointments in chemistry at Carolina and chemical engineering at N.C. State, told Carolina’s Board of Trustees in summer 2013 that Carolina should be doing more to translate its burgeoning research enterprise into startup companies to help revive the state’s ailing economy.

And collaborations with N.C. State could help, he said.

DeSimone’s remarks fit the message Gov. Pat McCrory has emphasized: the need to better align educational programs in North Carolina’s community colleges and universities with current and future market demand for jobs.

No problem, Allbritton said.

All the key pieces are already present in the Triangle for BME to gain national prominence – and to have the kind of economic impact that DeSimone and McCrory have called for.

In fact, Allbritton sees a parallel between BME and the N.C. Biotechnology Center, which former Gov. Jim Hunt and N.C. legislators created three decades ago to spur replacements for lost traditional jobs in tobacco and textiles

As a result of that spark, North Carolina ranks only behind California and Massachusetts in its cluster of biotechnology companies.

BME, Allbritton is convinced, holds that same potential to help North Carolina’s economy recover from the Great Recession. And she has the numbers to prove it.

“Guess what the No. 1 job in the country was last year, according to CNN Money?” she asked. “Biomedical engineering.”

In 2013, the field’s median pay was $87,000, the top pay was $134,000, and the 10-year growth rate was nearly 62 percent, Allbritton said.

Read more from the University Gazette article by Gary Moss.

March 19, 2014.