Bioengineering (BE) majors and minors are available at Valpo University for those looking to integrate engineering with biology.
“Bioengineering is an engineering field that deals very generally with health and health systems. When people think bioengineering they think obviously the human body, but it’s open to any kind of logical organism. It’s an extremely, extremely broad field,” said Craig Goehler, Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering.
Students can choose from three tracks which are biomedical, bioelectrical and biomechanical engineering.
Biomedical engineering is typically what people think of when they think of bioengineering.
“The most popular so far has been the medical track which is a little more biology heavy, a little more biology and chemistry, and covers all of the prerequisites for medical school. So you could do a biomedical degree here and then take the MCAT [Medical College Admission Test] and go to medical school,” said Bethany Luke, Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Bioengineering.
Yet some students change their minds and switch tracks.
“Last year we graduated our first class of BE’s and it was pretty much half and half biomechanical and biomedical. This year’s senior class has our first two bio electrical students in it so we are seeing some take the first track as well. So now if you look at the freshmen and sophomore classes it’s a little more evenly spread out,” Goehler said. “I’d say they come in more heavily on the biomedical track but by the time they get to sophomore year it spreads out.”
There are three required courses for all bioengineering students. Those are biomaterials, biomechanics and bioelectricity.
“Bio materials involves materials that interact with biology and the human body.
Bio electricity involves electrical signals and systems that interact with biology. So the nervous system, the brain and how to use neural signals, neuroengineering that kind of stuff,” said Reva Johnson, Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Bioengineering. “And then biomechanics is modeling the human body or other bodies as a mechanical system and looking at human movement and how we can model human movement with engineering models.”
A required course in the major is the biotechnology lab. In this lab the students do experiments and see what technology is out there.
“For example, some really cool stuff related to bio electricity would be reading the electrical signal as a muscle contracts. So by flexing my biceps I’m sending an electrical signal that we can then read through the skin. We process that through the computer through different hardware and then we can send that signal or use that process signal to control something else,” Luke said. “So the students will pick a muscle and an action to send the electrical signal and then they will physically actuate something as a result of the contraction.”
Then there are also elective classes that students can take.
“So I teach a class called human machine interfaces and in that class we study how we can model human movement with engineering models and then once we’ve described the human with an engineering model we can figure out how to design machines that interact with those humans in a way that can improve human health and restore ability after injury or disease so that’s one,” Johnson said.
Students are also required to take the bioengineering seminar. While most of the core classes are taken as juniors and seniors, sophomores usually take this course.
“That is open to literally anyone. If anyone wants to take a bioengineering seminar they are welcome to. We have outside speakers come in to talk about what they do. We have debates about bioengineering topics and all sorts of good stuff,” Johnson said.
There are also many research opportunities for students in bioengineering. Luke’s lab is looking at computational modeling of scaffold materials which are used to repair injured tissue.
“Most people know someone who’s torn their ACL that doesn’t heal very well and the treatments are not very good and so scaffolds are a really promising treatment because you can put them in the body and they support temporarily so like scaffolding is only there for a while,” Luke said. “And then as time goes by cells can actually replace the scaffold with healthy tissue leading to a better result potentially than typical treatments. My work is around the design of those and coming up with a computational model to facilitate design.”
Another research lab deals with prosthetics.
“So my background is in prosthetics and so I work on really broadly ‘how do humans’ interact with machines,’ like prosthetics or other devices for rehabilitation. I’m also doing some work in heptics so any technology that pushes back against you or any technology that gives you feedback in some way,” Johnson said.
Another lab deals with injury assessment and return to sport by looking at athletes in Valpo’s athletic department.
“We bring them in and we have them do various activities and motions. We do motion capture analysis, we’ll record muscle activations, impacts using pressure maps, which is kind of like a force plate on the ground. And we also have a more mobile system that allows us to take the lab into the field so you can actually record in the soccer field, football field, the baseball diamond, the basketball etc.,” Goehler said.
There are many career opportunities available for bioengineering students once they graduate.
“So some bioengineers work in a really clinical capacity, sitting in on surgeries, talking to doctors, helping design medical devices and surgical tools. Others might be more industrial and maybe design robots that interact with humans on manufacturing lines, maybe design the interfaces that people interact with to control whatever sort of machine, computer mouses or joysticks, that’s a little bit more industrial careers,” Johnson said. “Some might go into research and work on designing new technology. Some might go into quality or the legal side of biotechnology.”
The professors believe that bioengineering is important due to it’s real world impact.
“One of the things that I think is really cool about our program is that we try to center things in real life problems so you’re not just learning about abstract bio materials and material properties and how stiff the materials are. You learn those things but we learn those things in the context of meaningful bio materials devices,” Luke said.
Another reason is the integration of the program with engineering and other science courses.
“What’s cool about bioengineering is that you take your biology classes, you take your engineering classes and bioengineering is really just applying engineering to biological systems,” Johnson said.
Students interested in learning more about the bioengineering program at Valpo can visit the bioengineering page on Valpo University’s website to learn more.