Neural Engineer Appointed to Lead Bioengineering Department
July 3, 2013
Dr. Robert L. Rennaker II
Dr. Robert L. Rennaker II, an expert in the development of neural interfaces, has been appointed head of the Department of Bioengineering, replacing Dr. Mathukumalli Vidyasagar, who is stepping down to focus on his research in statistics and computational biology related to cancer therapy.
Created in 2010, the Department of Bioengineering grants graduate degrees in biomedical engineering in collaboration with UT Southwestern Medical Center and UT Arlington. The program emphasizes an interdisciplinary approach, combining expertise in electrical, mechanical and materials engineering, coupled with the life sciences.
The undergraduate program, based entirely at UT Dallas, is similar, giving students a foundation in engineering and mathematics, complemented with biology, physiology and medical instrumentation.
Under the leadership of Vidyasagar, an expert in control and system theory and holder of the Cecil H. and Ida Green Chair in Systems Biology Science, the undergraduate program, which began enrolling students only two years ago, has grown to about 175 students. Vidyasagar has also been instrumental in building graduate research opportunities with UT Southwestern in medical imaging, biomechanical devices, diagnostics and other areas.
Dr. Mathukumalli Vidyasagar
“We owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to Dr. Vidyasagar, who stepped up to lead the nascent Bioengineering Department at a time when we really had little to offer prospective students and faculty candidates,” said Dr. Mark W. Spong, dean of the Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science. “In addition to establishing strong ties to UT Southwestern and UT Arlington, Sagar helped to hire the initial cohort of faculty and launched the undergraduate program, while maintaining a very active research program and a full teaching load. Under Sagar’s leadership, the department has been very successful in recruiting excellent students and has the highest percentage of domestic graduate students of any of the Jonsson School’s programs. He leaves the department in a strong position for Rob Rennaker, who I am confident will continue to grow and strengthen the programs.”
A neural engineer, Rennaker is an associate professor of electrical engineering and neuroscience at UT Dallas and director of Texas Biomedical Device Center. The center has a strong connection to the Bioengineering Department and includes faculty members from the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences, the Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science and the School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics.
“I am very pleased that Rob has agreed to take on this role, given the other demands on his time,” said Spong, holder of the Lars Magnus Ericsson Chair in Electrical Engineering and the Excellence in Education Chair. “Our bioengineering program is crucial for our future success, and we are fortunate at UTD to have faculty members, like Rob and Sagar, who step up time and again to help us achieve our goal of becoming a top tier school.”
“I look forward to helping UTD faculty members reach their full potential as educators and scientists, to directing the education of students interested in a field I am passionate about and being part of research programs that will improve the quality of life of all Americans through the development of advanced therapies and devices.”
Rennaker served in the U.S. Marine Corps for five years before becoming a professional engineer. His service included evacuating foreign dignitaries from Liberia during Operation Sharp Edge and supporting operations in Kuwait during Desert Shield/Storm and in Yugoslavia during Operation Provide Comfort. After his honorable discharge in 1993, he earned his bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in biomedical engineering from Arizona State University with the help of the prestigious Whitaker International Fellows and Scholars Program for emerging leaders in biomedical engineering.
He completed postdoctoral research in the UT Dallas lab of Dr. Michael Kilgard, professor of neuroscience, before teaching mechanical and biomedical engineering for seven years at the University of Oklahoma. He returned to UT Dallas in 2009 as an associate professor in both the Jonsson School and School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences.
Rennaker researches how to make wireless medical devices that can interface with the brain and body. These neural interfaces, which function without wires attached to a power source outside the body, result in less scarring and complications than devices currently used in patient care. His research is shedding light on how these interfaces can be used to understand and modify brain function to create neurological therapies. Rennaker is co-founder and owner of Vulintus LLC, which builds preclinical and clinical research systems for researchers, biomedical research firms, and health care professionals.
Rennaker said factors in his decision to take on the additional role as department head include the groundbreaking research being conducted at UT Dallas, the University’s close proximity to major medical companies and the already strong collaborations with other academic institutions and industry leaders such as Texas Instruments, which helped create the Texas Biomedical Device Center.
“The UT Dallas biomedical engineering program is poised to become a leader in biomedical research and education,” Rennaker said. “I look forward to helping UTD faculty members reach their full potential as educators and scientists, to directing the education of students interested in a field I am passionate about and being part of research programs that will improve the quality of life of all Americans through the development of advanced therapies and devices.”
Vidyasagar, who agreed to serve as department head until his successor could be identified, will continue to play a significant role in the future of bioengineering at UT Dallas.