Pitt | Swanson Engineering

The Department of Bioengineering combines hands-on experience with the solid fundamentals that students need to advance themselves in research, medicine, and industry. The Department has a long-standing and unique relationship with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and other academic departments at the University of Pittsburgh as well as neighboring Carnegie Mellon University. Our faculty are shared with these organizations, offering our graduate and undergraduate students access to state-of-the-art facilities and a wide array of research opportunities. We currently have 187 graduate students who are advised by some 100 different faculty advisers, pursuing graduate research across 17 Departments and five Schools. Our undergraduate class-size of approximately 50 students per year ensures close student-faculty interactions in the classroom and the laboratory.

The main engineering building is located next to the Medical Center in Oakland, an elegant university neighborhood with museums, parks, and great restaurants. Beautiful new facilities have also been built, a short shuttle ride from the main campus, along the Monongahela River, replacing the steel mills that once were there. Our department is growing rapidly, both in numbers of students and faculty, and in the funding and diversity of our research. The Pittsburgh bioengineering community is a vibrant and stimulating alliance of diverse components for which our department forms an essential and central connection.


Seven Bioengineering Students Recognized by the 2018 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship


The NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported science, technology, engineering, and mathematics disciplines who are pursuing research-based master's and doctoral degrees. Recipients are awarded a three-year annual stipend of $34,000 along with a $12,000 cost of education allowance for tuition and fees. This year, six bioengineering students at the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering received this competitive award, and one received an honorable mention. “Needless to say, I am delighted by this outstanding outcome,” said Sanjeev Shroff, Distinguished Professor and McGinnis Chair of Bioengineering at Pitt. “This underscores the quality of our students and their potential to serve as science ambassadors.  I am very happy to note that the infrastructure we had put in place six years ago to provide structured help to students applying for NSF-GRFP awards is now bearing fruit. This effort is currently led by Professor Patrick Loughlin, with support from several Swanson School faculty members and students who previously won NSF-GRFP awards.” The NSF Fellows are expected to become knowledge experts who can contribute significantly to research, teaching, and innovations in science and engineering. Current bioengineering students who were awarded the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship include: Henry Phalen, undergraduate student in Dr. Ervin Sejdić’s lab Adam Lewis Smoulder, undergraduate student in Dr. Neeraj Gandhi’s lab Sarah Hemler, graduate student in Kurt Beschorner’s lab Angelica Janina Herrera, graduate student in Jen Collinger’s lab Monica Fei Liu, graduate student in Doug Weber’s lab Megan Routzong, graduate student in Dr. Steven Abramowitch’s lab Maria Kathleen Jantz, a current bioengineering graduate student in Robert Gaunt’s lab, received an honorable mention. In addition to the current Swanson School students, two bioengineering alumni were also recognized: Luke Dmach, a graduate student in Georgia Tech’s biomedical engineering program, received the NSF-GRFP award; and Corey Williams, a graduate student in the University of Virginia’s biomedical engineering program, received an honorable mention. In total, eleven University of Pittsburgh students and four alumni were awarded the 2018 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. Eleven Pitt students and four alumni also received honorable mentions. Read more from the University of Pittsburgh’s press release.


Bioengineering and the Brain


In January 2014, the University of Pittsburgh announced it would establish a new Brain Institute to “unlock the mysteries of normal and abnormal brain function, and then use this new information to develop novel treatments and cures for brain disorders.” Its founding scientific director, Peter L. Strick, PhD is Distinguished Professor & Thomas Detre Endowed Chair of the Department of Neurobiology and an expert on the neural basis of movement and cognition. He believes that the success of the program requires a multi-disciplinary approach that includes the Swanson School’s Department of Bioengineering. Dr. Peter Strick enjoys telling stories and speaks with a quiet passion that resonates with the history of neuroscience he has helped to build at Pitt. He also understands that it takes more than one discipline, one way of thinking to build upon that success and create a game-changing Brain Institute. “I started at Pitt 18 years ago as the co-director of the Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition (CBNC),” a joint venture between the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University, with Dr. Strick representing Pitt. “The Center took the comparable strengths of CMU robotics, computer science and statistics, and merged it with the strong neuroscience and clinical programs at Pitt. At the time, Pitt’s bioengineering program was in its infancy and wasn’t involved, but I saw that as a mistake. “Neural engineering and brain interface research was beginning to blossom and I truly thought that it could be a key player in the Center, especially because of its revolutionary work in tissue engineering.” Dr. Strick explains that bioengineering was key because of its inherent nature of being a multi-faceted discipline. “I related the potential of bioengineering to the beginning of my own career, as a neuroanatomist who cross-trained in my post-doc as a neurophysiologist. An eminent neurophysiologist told me that I would have to decide what I was going to be when I grew up.  Otherwise, I would be neither fish nor fowl – I wouldn't swim well or fly well. “Fifteen years later, when he saw me once more and it became apparent that the cross training had benefited my research [in utilizing viruses to understand neural circuitry], he said he was glad I didn’t take his advice. Neuroscience and bioengineering are similar in that both need to ask questions and then use whatever technique is most appropriate to answer them.  Bioengineers have the special challenge of combining training in hard core biology with the quantitative and computational approaches of engineering.” Dr. Strick believes that “it takes a University” to develop a leading program in brain research, one that taps into the multidisciplinary and open nature of collaboration between disciplines. One of his first recruits was Andrew Schwartz, professor of neurobiology with expertise in neural control. “Andy was responsible for the explosive growth of neural engineering research at Pitt, and led a pioneering group in brain-machine interface,” Dr. Strick says. “I saw its potential and the need to nurture and sustain it.” Dr. Strick explains that Dr. Schwartz shared his vision because he too understands the need to remove barriers to collaboration and take advantage of the open academic architecture of a university like Pitt. Over time the university would grow to include approximately 150 neuroscientists across disciplines, not including purely clinical colleagues. Dr. Strick says that the Swanson School’s Department of Bioengineering continues to play a key role in that growth, especially in Pitt’s growing expertise in neural engineering and brain-machine interface research. “The bioengineering faculty truly are a university resource, an intellectual resource that is active across all departments,” he explains. “The brain-machine interface program is bigger than a single department. It includes neurosurgeons who interact with physical medicine and rehabilitation scientists who work with patients to promote recovery, as well as the bioengineering faculty who explore everything from the electrode-tissue interface of brain implants to decoding neural signals to control robotic devices.” The brain-machine interface program captured international headlines when the team enabled patient Jan Scheuermann, a 53-year-old woman who suffers from a neurodegenerative disease and is paralyzed below the neck, to move a robotic arm and feed herself a bar of chocolate. The robotic arm was controlled via microeletrode arrays implanted into the surface of her cerebral cortex, enabling her to move the arm with her thoughts. “The success with Jan is a perfect example of how a multi-disciplinary program, built from the strengths of multiple departments in a major university and its medical school, can literally transform a life,” he says. Cross-disciplinary and cross-departmental interactions, as well as outside-the-box thinking were critical to the success of this project. “In the 1980s Andy proposed placing a monkey in a primate chair and training the animal to control an imaginary ball within a virtual reality environment,” Dr. Strick remembers. “People thought this research would lead nowhere, but in fact it was the foundation to allow a woman to control a robotic arm and feed herself chocolate.” WHAT MAKES A GREAT SCIENTIST AND BIOENGINEER? “There is a notion that individuals have brains with certain specific abilities that lead some of us to be writers, others to be mathematicians and scientists and still others to be artists.  According to this view, few of us have all of these abilities.  Thus, one doesn't normally expect the math genius to be the most communicative person in the room,” Dr. Strick says. “Today's modern scientist has to be multidisciplinary and broadly skilled to be successful.  He or she must write well, speak well and of course do science well.  The modern scientist must write grants that are clear and compelling and be able to communicate their ideas and findings to the lay public as well as to specialists in the field. “The modern bioengineer has an even more daunting challenge.  They must be cross-trained in math, physics, engineering, computer science and still think like a biologist.  Learning each of these disciplines is like learning a new language.  In a sense, bioengineers must be multilingual.  Not everyone is interested or even able to stretch in this way.  Our Bioengineering Department is unique in that it has attracted faculty who speak the many languages of science and recognize the value of multiple levels of analysis from cell and molecular approaches to whole systems and networks.” BUILDING A BETTER BRAIN INSTITUTE A major task of the Brain Institute, according to Dr. Strick, is to identify and provide the necessary research resources to enable world-class neuroscience at Pitt.  These resources include major equipment, outstanding faculty and research funding.  The most difficult part of this task is fundraising. “Our faculty do a wonderful job of obtaining federal grants to support their research. But, by all accounts, federal funding for research is shrinking,” Dr. Strick explains. “As a consequence, we are in danger of shutting off the pipeline for discovery.  Our representatives and the general public want the field to translate results into new treatments and cures for neurological and neuropsychiatric disorders.  However, this translation depends critically on new discoveries that come from basic fundamental research. “In essence, without new discoveries, there is nothing to translate.  A major task of the Brain Institute is to identify financial resources that can enable us to keep the pipeline of discovery open.” As noted earlier, the core mission of the Brain Institute is to unlock the mysteries of normal and abnormal brain function, and then use this new information to develop novel treatments and cures for brain disorders.  “I see bioengineering as a major player in this mission,” Dr. Strick says. “Indeed, the faculty and students at the Swanson School and in the Neural Engineering Track are posed to make major contributions to new areas of neuroscience such as multi-modal neuro-imaging with PET, MR and MEG; neuromodulation with deep brain stimulation, and neuro-technology with brain machine interfaces.  Faculty in Bioengineering like Aaron Batista, Tracy Cui, Raj Gandhi, Takashi Kozai, Gelsy Oviedo-Torres, and Doug Weber are all involved in cutting-edge research.  The success of the Brain Institute will depend in part on the efforts of this vibrant faculty.”
Paul Kovach

“Tic-Tac-Toe”-Themed MRI Technology Easy Win for Neurological Disease Researchers


PITTSBURGH (April 12, 2018) … The University of Pittsburgh houses a whole-body 7 Tesla magnetic resonance imager (7T MRI), one of the strongest human MRI devices in the world and a powerful imaging tool that allows researchers to gain a far better understanding of brain structure and function. Tamer Ibrahim, associate professor of bioengineering in Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering, runs the Radiofrequency (RF) Research Facility and conducts experimental and human studies with this device - one of only five dozen 7T MRI machines in the world. Over the past two years, in collaboration with Pitt’s Departments of Psychiatry and Epidemiology, Ibrahim’s lab has received close to $5 million from multiple NIH grants that total more than $18 million and extend through 2022. These awards fund the development and use of innovative 7T human imaging technologies. Ibrahim and his team of bioengineering graduate students constructed and optimized the “Tic-Tac-Toe” RF coil system for 7T human MRI devices. This system is a collection of transmit antennas and receive antennas that are tightly arranged to fit the human head.  It was designed through many hours of computer simulations using full wave electromagnetic software developed in his lab. Though advancements have been made, several major obstacles still face neuro 7T imaging such as considerable scanning and preparation time for every subject; significant RF excitation intensity losses; potential RF heating; and concerns regarding the unclear RF safety assurance between different subjects. “The Tic-Tac-Toe RF coil system is a novel design that addresses many of the technical difficulties associated with ultrahigh field human MRI,” said Ibrahim. “Our system provides highly consistent and homogenous excitation across different patients, which in turn provides improved images.” In collaboration with Howard Aizenstein (MPI), Charles F. Reynolds III and Ellen G. Detlefsen Endowed Chair of Geriatric Psychiatry at Pitt, Ibrahim recently became PI/PD on an NIH R01 grant where he will use the technology developed in his lab to investigate small vessel disease in older adults with depression. This disease affects a large amount of the American population, but research has been hindered in part due to the inadequacies of traditional imaging. 7T diffusion fiber tracking. In this $3.1 million project, Ibrahim uses the “Tic-Tac-Toe” RF coil system and develops a new 7T RF coil system to better understand the neurological issues, treatment, and management of depression. “White matter hyperintensities (WMH) in the brain are a hallmark symptom of small vessel disease, which has been associated with depression in older adults,” explained Ibrahim. “Traditional MR imaging does not provide enough detail; thus, researchers cannot determine the specific mechanisms that contribute to depression. Ultrahigh field MR imaging allows for greater specificity of the WMH lesions and other components of small vessel disease, which will give us a better understanding of depression as a whole.” In addition to their work with depression, Ibrahim’s developed technology has contributed to research in a variety of other neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia, sickle cell disease, and major depressive disorder. Ibrahim’s lab is composed entirely of graduate and undergraduate students who aim to develop highly technical RF devices, which they typically get to implement into clinical studies. “We have applied our work to several patient and disease studies at Pitt,” said Ibrahim. “Our lab’s research is unique because its roots are in engineering and physics, but it has now matured to extensive patient-level studies.” “It has been interesting to see our work go from engineering and physics concepts to real-world applications,” Ibrahim continued. “This is a great example of how engineering innovation done in the Swanson School of Engineering translates into medicine.” ###


BioE’s Davidson, Debski, and Vande Geest Inducted into Medical and Biological Engineering Elite

All SSoE News, Bioengineering

Reprinted with permission from AIMBE. WASHINGTON, D.C.— The American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering (AIMBE) has announced the induction of three University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering professors to its College of Fellows. Lance A. Davidson, Ph.D., Professor, Department of Bioengineering, University of Pittsburgh, for seminal contributions to developmental biomechanics, establishing theoretical frameworks and experimental techniques to expose design principles. Richard E. Debski, Ph.D., Professor of Bioengineering and Orthopaedic Surgery, Department of Bioengineering, University of Pittsburgh, for outstanding contributions in bioengineering research, particularly in the area of biomechanics of shoulder and knee joints. Jonathan Vande Geest, Ph.D., Professor, Bioengineering, University of Pittsburgh, for outstanding contributions to the educational and scientific advancement of experimental and computational soft tissue biomechanics. Each professor was nominated, reviewed, and elected by peers and members of the College of Fellows. Election to the AIMBE College of Fellows is among the highest professional distinctions accorded to a medical and biological engineer. The College of Fellows is comprised of the top two percent of medical and biological engineers. College membership honors those who have made outstanding contributions to "engineering and medicine research, practice, or education” and to "the pioneering of new and developing fields of technology, making major advancements in traditional fields of medical and biological engineering, or developing/implementing innovative approaches to bioengineering education." A formal induction ceremony was held during the AIMBE Annual Meeting at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, DC on April 9, 2018. These professors were inducted along with 156 colleagues who make up the AIMBE College of Fellows Class of 2018. About AIMBE AIMBE is the authoritative voice and advocate for the value of medical and biological engineering to society. AIMBE’s mission is to recognize excellence, advance the public understanding, and accelerate medical and biological innovation. No other organization can bring together academic, industry, government, and scientific societies to form a highly influential community advancing medical and biological engineering. AIMBE’s mission drives advocacy initiatives into action on Capitol Hill and beyond. For more information about the AIMBE, please visit www.aimbe.org.
Charlie Kim, Director of Membership Services, AIMBE

Coming into Focus: Neeraj Gandhi receives $1.5M NIH award to study how the brain perceives moving objects


PITTSBURGH (April 9, 2018) … Our local environments are full of moving objects, but when we look at them, our brains can take around 50-60 milliseconds to put together an image. How does our vision compensate for that lag in time when the world around us keeps moving? Neeraj Gandhi, professor of bioengineering in the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering, received funding to explore that question by comparing the neural mechanisms of eye movements directed to stationary and moving objects. Gandhi leads the Cognition and Sensorimotor Integration Laboratory which investigates neural mechanisms involved in the multiple facets of sensory-to-motor transformations and cognitive processes. In this project, the group uses eye movement as a model of motor control. “When we look at our local environment, our eyes do not do so with steady fixation. The brain sends a signal to the eye muscles resulting in rapid eye movement -or saccade- that occurs several times per second,” said Gandhi. “Our visual information is taken from the points of fixation between these saccades. While the neural mechanisms of saccades with stationary objects have been well-researched, little is known about the interceptive saccades used for moving objects,” said Gandhi. The National Institutes of Health awarded Gandhi $1.5M to develop experimental and computational approaches to study the “Neural Control of Interceptive Movements.” “Consider catching a football. By the time the receiver’s brain gathers visual information, the ball has already moved further down the field,” explains Gandhi. “The athlete’s brain must then take velocity into the equation and develop an internal representation of the motion in order to successfully catch the ball.” The team will record the activity of neurons in the superior colliculus, which is a layered structure in the midbrain and a central element in producing saccadic eye movements. They will simultaneously compare the spatiotemporal properties of the neural activity at different speeds and directions during saccades to stationary and moving targets.  They will then integrate these results in a computational neural network model that simulates the neural signals and their contributions in producing both types of eye movements. “Vision is a complicated, multidisciplinary subject,” said Gandhi. “The results of this project will hopefully piece together a part of the puzzle by providing in-depth insight into the mechanisms for generation of interceptive saccades and give us a better understanding of how we visualize our active environment.” ###

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Bioengineering By The Numbers


Number of Undergraduate Students enrolled for the 2017-2018 Academic Year


Number of PhD Candidates enrolled for the 2017-2018 Academic Year


Number of Masters Candidates enrolled for the 2017-2018 Academic Year


Number of PhD Degrees Awarded in 2016-2017 Academic Year


Number of MS Degrees Awarded in 2016-2017 Academic Year


Number of BS Degrees Awarded in 2016-2017 Academic Year


Number of Faculty Publications in 2016-2017 Academic Year


Number of Graduate Publications in 2016-2017 Academic Year


Number of Undergraduate Publications in 2016-2017 Academic Year