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New Graduate Programs Fuse Medicine and Engineering


New Graduate Programs Fuse Medicine and Engineering


New Graduate Programs Fuse Medicine and Engineering

Doctoral student Julio Rincon is excited to switch over to the newly approved biomedical engineering program at UTEP. He is currently researching a biodevice that will be able to detect multiple diseases.
Photo by Nadia M. Whitehead / UTEP News Service

This fall, The University of Texas at El Paso will begin offering a new graduate education option for students: biomedical engineering (BME).

"This is what I consider a cutting edge degree," said Julio Rincon, a doctoral materials science and engineering (MASE) student at UTEP who will be switching to the BME Ph.D. program. "There are a lot of new opportunities in this field, whereas other fields are already widely exploited and it's harder to innovate in them."

Rincon is one of several students who have been patiently awaiting the approval of the new master's and doctoral degrees, which officially occurred on July 25 when the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board gave UTEP the go-ahead. The curriculum will have a strong focus on biomedical engineering for low-resource settings and the developing world.

Rincon is one of several students who have been patiently awaiting the approval of the new master's and doctoral degrees, which officially occurred on July 25 when the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board gave UTEP the go-ahead. The curriculum will have a strong focus on biomedical engineering for low-resource settings and the developing world.

"There is enormous interest in this program from students and from the community, and we are very excited to finally get this program off the ground," said Richard Schoephoerster, Ph.D., dean of the College of Engineering.

The new biomedical engineering Ph.D. marks the 20th doctoral degree offered by the University.

"We are very pleased to secure authorization to offer new UTEP degrees in biomedical engineering, a fast-growing field in which we've developed robust research capacity, and where there is strong student interest and demand for graduates," said UTEP President Diana Natalicio. "These new biomedical engineering degrees, and the research associated with them, will enhance UTEP's reputation for preparing a highly competitive and increasingly Hispanic workforce, expand our contributions to the economy of the El Paso border region and beyond, and accelerate our progress toward Tier One."

Although this is an important step for the University, many researchers on campus have already had a hand in biomedical research for years.

Thomas Boland, Ph.D., who will serve as director of the new programs, has been working at UTEP since 2009 developing low-cost, 3-D tissue printing. Roger V. Gonzalez, Ph.D., professor of mechanical engineering and founder of LIMBS International – a non-profit organization that strives to create highly functional, ultra-low-cost prosthetics for the poor – was hired about a year ago.

Both professors have a handful of UTEP students working on research with them – like Rincon and Rena Hale, another MASE doctoral student who plans to make the switch to the BME program.

"I'm very excited that this program is finally approved," said Hale, who has bachelor's and master's degrees in BME. "And I'm sure the school at large is much more excited due to their time and effort in the program. UTEP has unique resources for this program, specifically its partnership with Texas Tech."

Part of the new BME program administered at UTEP is in collaboration with the Texas Tech University Paul L. Foster School of Medicine, where students will have the opportunity to gain clinical insight into their research by working with physicians and researchers.

"I've been participating in clinical rotations and am shadowing a couple of physicians," said Hale, whose dissertation will revolve around the knee and athletes who have torn their ACL. "Biomedical engineering is a unique field because in every aspect of it there has to be some form of clinical application – you can't just focus solely on engineering or you won't properly be able to apply it to the body."

The engineer has been studying healthy subjects, and rare individuals who have torn their ACL and completely recovered without an operation – thus managing to live normal lives without an ACL.

Using a robotic knee simulator, a cadaver knee, and data collected from multiple subjects, Hale is able to simulate lower extremity motion to understand various knee parameters like pressure distribution.

The goal of her research is to create new protocol for rehabilitation to try to teach those who have torn their ACL how to cope and regain complete mobility without surgical reconstruction.

Unlike Hale, who is interested in biomechanics, Rincon has been studying various biomaterials and is currently working with Boland on creating artificial antibodies of various diseases to help with diagnosis.

Natural antibodies are necessary for disease detection, but are extremely delicate and require constant refrigeration.

"The principal objective of our research is to help third world countries that don't have the equipment necessary to maintain natural antibodies," said Rincon, who explained that the ultimate goal is to create a biodevice that can detect multiple diseases. "But it could also benefit countries like the U.S. – like our military personnel [who frequently travel to these areas], as well as underserved areas of our country."

The team has already been successful in creating an artificial West Nile antibody.

Once Rincon earns his BME doctoral degree, he plans to collaborate with his father, a neurologist, and pioneer his own project to help children with cerebral palsy – a motor condition that causes physical disability.

"These children have their legs permanently contracted and are unable to walk properly," he said. "I already have an idea of what I want to engineer and am confident that I can help their situation."

The biomedical and biotechnology industry is one of the fastest-growing industries in the United States.

Boland anticipates that 25 Ph.D. students and 64 master's students will be enrolled in the program within five years.

"This is great news for UTEP and reflects the quality of our faculty, students and facilities," he said. "I'm especially delighted for our students who will be awarded degrees that are highly sought by startup companies and Fortune 500 employers in the biomedical technology, biotechnology, and pharmaceutical industries."

Schoephoerster added, "Our strong affiliations with such institutions as the Paul Foster School of Medicine and Medical Center of the Americas Foundation will ensure that the technology will be commercialized for use and that we are having a positive impact on the lives of patients."


The University of Texas at El Paso
College of Engineering
Engineering Building Room A148
500 W University Ave
El Paso, TX 79968

Phone: (915) 747-6444
Fax: (915) 747-5437

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