In spring 2021, a group of university teachers and administrators came together to develop a proposal for a potential institute for biology, engineering and medicine. More than a year later, at the faculty assembly in April, an application for the founding of the institute – called I-BEAM – was passed with effect from July 1st.
The Institute is currently awaiting corporate approval, which Professor Vicki Colvin expects will occur during their May meeting. Colvin currently serves as director of the university’s Center for Biomedical Engineering, on which the institute will be built.
“Brown has this amazing history in biomedical engineering,” Colvin said. “It turns out that some of the first researchers in biomedical engineering to make artificial organs in the 1960s and 1970s were actually Brown faculty.”
The university established a Biomedical Engineering Center on campus in 2002 – which has its own undergraduate concentration. Since the center’s founding, there has been “an explosion of math, engineering and biology” at the university, Colvin said.
“Today, biologists work very quantitatively. We are able to predict biological systems and describe them mathematically,” said Colvin. “It has really expanded the types of people who do engineering in biology and medicine.” She added that “marriage” calculations and experiments will be at the core of I-BEAM’s brand.
“There’s been an explosion in healthcare technology over the past decade,” said Larry Larson, Dean of Engineering, who was part of the original planning group. “The intersection of medical science, technology and medicine is transforming the lives of people around the world.”
“We felt that an institute would be a great way to realize the potential of this growth and really accelerate Brown’s leadership in this space going forward,” he added.
I-BEAM’s mission is to “take life sciences and technologies and translate them into…clinical solutions for patients,” Larson said. “We want to cover the entire food chain (from basic research to clinical application) and have a major impact at every step.”
The governing body of the institute will consist of a director and faculty members — including professors from the faculties of biology, engineering and medicine, a chair from a hospital department and faculty from two other sciences, according to Colvin. Student organizations for undergraduate and graduate students such as the Undergraduate Biomedical Engineering Society were also integrated into the planned structure of the institute.
I-BEAM’s management team will include a faculty steering committee that will oversee the institute’s strategic planning and review what type of programs from “conferences to workshops… we want to do in… three to five years time,” Colvin said.
Bridging departmental gaps for the faculty
The institute will work to “bring together a truly unique combination of faculty,” Colvin said.
Mathematics professor George Karniadakis, who was not on the planning committee, believes I-BEAM will help faculty members who don’t typically push the boundaries of their departments by taking them “out of their comfort zone” and exploring more interdisciplinary research.
“Personally, I would like to work with more faculty, especially doctors from the hospitals,” he added.
“An institute allows you to bring together large groups of faculty to deal with big problems,” Larson said. I-BEAM will work to bring together clinicians working on problems with biologists, applied mathematicians and other faculty members through small research groups.
“We can help faculty come together (and) break down some of those time and funding barriers that you need to explore new research projects,” Colvin said.
Promotion of the interdisciplinary studies of the students
I-BEAM will also involve the university’s student body, which is important for research collaborations because while faculty oversees research, it’s students who are often in the lab, Colvin said. “They are one of the secret weapons.”
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According to Karniadakis, I-BEAM will be an “interdisciplinary research approach” that will allow students to work in different fields and understand the benefits of their studies.
Karniadakis believes there is a lot of interest among the university’s students in establishing such an institute, since biomedical engineering is the highest recognized degree among students in the School of Engineering, he said.
According to Colvin, the institute will build on that interest by working with the Brown Technology Innovations Office, the PRIME program or the Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship to create internship opportunities for students interested in the commercial side of biomedical technology. Students in these internship positions would be tasked with evaluating “what kind of questions really require technical sophistication… (and) evaluating competing technologies,” she added.
While Colvin anticipates that the focus on biomedical engineering will remain much the same, she hopes to develop courses at the institute that would allow interested students to explore other disciplines.
“I’m really interested in what I call bridge classes, where a mathematician (who is studying at the institute) could actually spend some time growing some cells,” she said. These classes would also allow biology students to “step out and really do a hardcore math project.”
According to Colvin, the institute also plans to develop a two-year research experience that will see students rotate between labs in different disciplines. This would help bridge the different areas of the institute and allow students to learn a variety of skills and concepts unique to different studies.
Involving the Providence community
Larson believes helping maintain Rhode Island’s “robust hospital system” will also be central to I-BEAM’s mission. “We want to have good academic links with the hospitals,” he said.
Hospitals produce “a lot of data” that gets lost, Karniadakis said, so I-BEAM will use that data to design better therapies for patients. “It is very important to provide doctors with scientific and prognostic tools,” he added.
“We have great partnerships with all of our local hospitals. A lot of people who practice at local hospitals are faculty at Brown,” Larson said. “And we really want to deepen this cooperation and push it even further in the coming years.”
“We’re trying to provide clinical solutions to our hospital partners so they can help members of the (Providence) community,” he added.
To continue to serve the broader Providence community, Colvin said I-BEAM would have a community advisory board that would invite people who live in Providence “from a wide variety of backgrounds” to help the institute understand “what people actually do.” want in their life. ”
I-BEAM would also seek to increase the number of women and underrepresented minorities in engineering, which Colvin says is already an “attractive” field for these groups. The institute would expand its faculty diversity through more conscious hiring efforts and strengthen partnerships with regional institutions.
Research conducted by faculty and students within the institute would also promote diversity, Colvin said, adding that creating “affordable and equitable (healthcare) systems” will be at the heart of the institute’s mission.
According to Karniadakis, schools across the country, including the California Institute of Technology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, have already become leading research institutions in the field of biomedical engineering.
“Brown University is a beacon of education in Rhode Island, so we don’t want it to fall behind,” he said. I-BEAM “will put Brown on the map.”