Bioengineering Program Makes Rapid Progress
Interim Head of University’s Newest Department Mapping Out the Future
The time is right for re-examining how engineers, computer scientists, physicians, biologists and others can work together to advance medicine, says Dr. Mathukumalli Vidyasagar, just-appointed interim head of the new Department of Bioengineering at UT Dallas.
“There is a fundamental transformation going on, whereby biology is nowadays as much an information-based science as it is an experiment-based science,” he said. “Rapid advances in technology have made it easy to generate vast amounts of raw data, and the next step is interpreting these data, finding patterns and unearthing new biological phenomena.”
Fresh out of discussions with a variety of researchers from UT Dallas and UT Southwestern Medical Center, Vidyasagar attributes the enthusiasm he encountered to the recognition that opportunities also exist for collaboration in medical imaging, biomechanical devices, diagnostics and many other areas.
“I have found what can only be described as a groundswell of interest in this program,” he said.
After several years in the planning stages, bioengineering has made rapid progress at UT Dallas in the past six months: The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board OK’d creation of the department – granting permission to offer master’s and doctoral degrees in biomedical engineering – UT Dallas joined the existing biomedical engineering partnership between UT Southwestern and UT Arlington, and the first bioengineering faculty were hired.
Bioengineering is the fifth academic department in the University’s Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science, which only two years ago had just two departments. In addition to its longtime departments of electrical engineering and computer science, the Jonsson School launched a department of mechanical engineering and a department of materials science and engineering in 2008.
The school’s strategic plan calls for enrollment of 150 bioengineering students by 2015 and 300 students by 2020. Administrators are confident Vidyasagar will move quickly toward creating a world-class bioengineering program.
“Dr. Vidyasagar is a world-renowned researcher in computational biology, learning theory, robotics and controls, and he also has extensive experience as an administrator,” said Dr. Mark W. Spong, dean of the Jonsson School and holder of the Lars Magnus Ericsson Chair in Electrical Engineering. “He is already actively leading efforts to further strengthen our close ties with UT Southwestern and to identify research space and continue recruiting faculty.”
Bioengineering faculty are expected to collaborate with researchers in electrical engineering, materials science, biology, chemistry and other areas at UT Dallas as well as with researchers from a variety of disciplines at both UT Southwestern and UT Arlington.
Vidyasagar himself is currently working on overhauling costly drug development methods through early computational prediction of potential side effects.
“For the department as a whole, I think we have an opportunity to distinguish ourselves from more-established departments by focusing specifically on the implementation of new and existing technologies into clinical medicine,” he said. “By this I don’t mean we will neglect basic science but that the new department should go the extra mile to ensure our research actually has an impact on clinical medicine.”
From an initial core of five or six faculty already at UT Dallas, he expects another 10 to 15 additional existing UT Dallas faculty to establish an affiliation with the new department plus another 10 or 15 researchers from UT Southwestern.
“So we potentially could have a department of 30 or 35 people very quickly,” he said.
Vidyasagar is the Cecil and Ida Green Chair of Systems Biological Sciences. Prior to joining UT Dallas last year he was executive vice president in charge of advanced technology at Tata Consultancy Services, India’s largest information technology firm, where he created a technology center that consisted of about 80 engineers and scientists working on e-security, advanced encryption methods and bioinformatics. He holds his doctorate as well as master’s and bachelor’s degrees in electrical engineering from the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
“All in all, I sense a great deal of goodwill from everyone to make the bioengineering program a great success,” he said.
Downplaying his own role, however, he added: “I think I am like the man who is skiing ahead of an avalanche while pretending to lead it.”“I have found what can only be described as a groundswell of interest in this program,” said Dr. Mathukumalli Vidyasagar.
The flagship publication of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers recently featured an article that looks at Mathukumalli Vidyasagar and his efforts to overhaul costly drug development methods.
Media Contact: The Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected].