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.


New Carnegie Mellon and Univ. of Pittsburgh research finds the brain is less flexible than previously thought when learning


Carnegie Mellon University News Release. Posted with permission.View the original release here. PITTSBURGH – Nobody really knows how the activity in your brain reorganizes as you learn new tasks, but new research from Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh reveals that the brain has various mechanisms and constraints by which it reorganizes its neural activity when learning over the course of a few hours. The new research finds that, when learning a new task, the brain is less flexible than previously thought. The research, published today in Nature Neuroscience (DOI: 10.1038/s41593-018-0095-3), examined the changes that take place in the brain when learning a new task. To truly see how neural activity changes during learning, we need to look bigger—at populations of neurons, rather than one neuron at a time, which has been the standard approach to date. The research team used a brain-computer interface (BCI), where subjects move a cursor on a computer screen by thought alone.  As with learning to play a new sport, they found that subjects learned to control the cursor more accurately with practice. They then investigated how the activity in the brain changed during learning that enabled the improved performance. They found that, on a time scale of a few hours, the brain does not reconfigure its neural activity to maximize the speed and accuracy by which it moves the cursor. “In this experimental paradigm, we’re able to track all of the neurons that can lead to behavioral improvements and look at how they all change simultaneously,” says Steve Chase, an associate professor of biomedical engineering at Carnegie Mellon and the Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition. “When we do that, what we see is a really constrained set of changes that happen, and it leads to this suboptimal improvement of performance. And so, that implies that there are limits that constrain how flexible your brain is, at least on these short time scales.” When we’re learning a new task, we can’t instantaneously learn it to proficiency, in part due to the way in which the neurons are wired up in the brain. Learning takes time, and there are mechanisms by which neurons can change the way they communicate with each other to enable learning—some of which can be fast, and some of which can take longer. The team found that the brain operates under a more stringent set of constraints than originally thought, resulting in good learning on the short term, but nevertheless suboptimal performance in controlling the BCI cursor. Imagine a tennis player whose friends have asked her to play squash. When she picks up the squash racket, it’s lighter than the tennis racket she is used to, and it has a slightly different balance point. But since she’s a good tennis player, this difference in rackets doesn’t cause her to miss the ball completely. She adjusts quickly, but she hasn’t immediately picked up the swing form of a squash player. To really become an expert, it will require a long period of training with the new equipment. However, her experienced squash-playing friends will quickly see that she is a tennis player, because until she’s learned the proper technique, she’ll be swinging the squash racket the same as she would a tennis racket. “Just as it takes time to train a person to swing a squash racket like an expert, it takes time to train one’s neurons to produce the ideal activity patterns,” says Byron Yu, associate professor of biomedical engineering and electrical and computer engineering at Carnegie Mellon. “When faced with a new task, we’re finding that the brain is constrained to take the neural activity patterns that it’s capable of generating right now and use them as effectively as possible in this new task.” “When we learn, at first the brain tends to not produce new activity patterns, but to repurpose the activity patterns it already knows how to generate,” says Aaron Batista, an associate professor in the Department of Bioengineering at the University of Pittsburgh. “Learning over the course of a few hours is suboptimal. When first learning something new, our brain doesn’t seem to be able to change its activity in the best possible way to allow us to be proficient at new skills.” Acquiring a skill is very difficult, and it takes a lot of time and a lot of practice. But when you’re first starting to learn a new skill, your brain has to adjust quickly to the new task. The researchers found that the brain is constrained to take neural activity patterns it already knows and use them for the new task. By repurposing neuron patterns the brain is already capable of generating, the brain applies a “quick and dirty fix” to the new problem it’s facing. “None of us predicted this outcome,” says Matthew Golub, a postdoctoral researcher in electrical and computer engineering at Carnegie Mellon. “Learning is far more limited on the scale of a few hours than any of us were expecting when we started this. We were all surprised that the brain wasn’t able to choose the best strategy possible.” The research was done in collaboration with the Center for Neural Basis of Cognition, a cross-university research and educational program between Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh that leverages each institution’s strengths to investigate the cognitive and neural mechanisms that give rise to biological intelligence and behavior. ### Carnegie Mellon University The College of Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University is a top-ranked engineering college that is known for our intentional focus on cross-disciplinary collaboration in research. The College is well-known for working on problems of both scientific and practical importance. Our "maker" culture is ingrained in all that we do, leading to novel approaches and transformative results. Our acclaimed faculty have a focus on innovation management and engineering to yield transformative results that will drive the intellectual and economic vitality of our community, nation and world. About the University of Pittsburgh’s Swanson School of Engineering: The University of Pittsburgh’s Swanson School of Engineering is one of the oldest engineering programs in the United States and is consistently ranked among the top 25 public engineering programs nationally. The Swanson School excels in basic and applied research in areas including sustainability, energy systems, bioengineering, micro- and nanosystems, computational modeling, advanced manufacturing, and advanced materials development. Curricular programs in innovation, product design, and entrepreneurship provide students with a strong foundation for even greater creativity and life opportunities.
Emily Durham, Carnegie Mellon University, College of Engineering

San Diego Based Business Development Executive Allison Formal appointed Director of Pitt’s Coulter Translational Research Partners II Program


PITTSBURGH (March 6, 2018) … After an extensive national search, the Coulter Translational Research Partners II Program at the University of Pittsburgh (Coulter@Pitt), has named Allison Formal, MBA as the Director of the Coulter Program in the Swanson School of Engineering.  Ms. Formal succeeds Max A. Fedor, MBA who moved within the University as the Executive Director of the Pittsburgh CREATES program at the Eye & Ear Foundation of Pittsburgh. Allison has a proven talent for identifying innovation. From concept through execution, she has produced thoughtful plans to assess business opportunities and assist researchers in addressing challenges in translational technology and development. “Allison’s business development experience will be very helpful to lead Coulter@Pitt through its next phase of growth and sustainability for the program at Pitt,” stated Sanjeev G. Shroff, PhD, the principal investigator of the Coulter@Pitt Program and Distinguished Professor and Gerald McGinnis Chair of Bioengineering at Pitt. Allison earned her MBA in finance and marketing from Marymount University. She started her professional career at Pfizer and has over 30 years of industry experience creating business alliances to advance biomedical innovations toward commercialization. She was most recently an Entrepreneur in Residence at UCLA with the Technology Development Group (the equivalent of Pitt’s Innovation Institute) and a consultant for Tollbridge Therapeutics founded by Nobel Laureate Bruce Beutler and the Myeloproliferative Neoplasm Research Foundation (MPNRF) where she now serves on the Board of Directors. Allison has been and remains focused on strategic planning and implementation for successful proof of concept studies. As the VP of Research Business Development at The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS), Allison played a key role building the successful venture philanthropy arm, the Therapy Acceleration Program (TAP). She created more than 60 research and development partnerships, investing in biopharmaceutical companies and academic researchers to develop therapies and diagnostics aimed at changing the standard of care for blood cancers. Allison has also held several leadership roles in biopharmaceutical companies including: VP, Business Development, MediQuest; VP, Business Development, Neuralstem; Director, International Division of Watson Pharmaceutical (now Allergan); and Director, Business Development, Humanitarian Aid Division of Schein-Bayer Pharmaceutical. Another unique set of qualifications brought by Allison include the roles she has played as an oversite committee member for the Translational Medicine and Commercialization Program at the University of Michigan Medical School (MTRAC, a program in the state of Michigan modeled on the Coulter process), a member of the grant review committee funding Bio-Therapeutic innovations at Oregon Health & Sciences University, and working with the commercialization committee at Washington State University. Alison said, “The University of Pittsburgh has a rich history of outstanding innovation, and I am very excited to be a part of its future, playing a role that will enable the biomedical engineering excellence to further develop and thrive. Pitt has played a leading role in making the Pittsburgh area a growing tech and innovation hub, and the Coulter model has significantly enhanced the entrepreneurial spirit. I am so pleased to be part of this vibrant community.” About the Coulter Program The Coulter Translational Research Partners II Program is a University based accelerator, designed to help faculty researchers translate their innovations to commercialization. By way of a competitive grant program, training processes, and collaborative services, our goal is to de-risk University technology and identify viable commercial pathways through the complex healthcare industry landscape. Further, we engage extensively with business partners, mentors and clinical experts to bring industry perspectives to translational research. In 6 years, the Coulter Program has attracted almost 200 applications, funded 31 projects leading to eight license agreements, four optioned technologies and eight start-up companies. About the Department of Bioengineering at the Swanson School of Engineering Bioengineering is the application of engineering principles to analyze native biological systems and to design and manufacture tools, structures, and processes for solving problems in the life sciences. Successful patient-focused and commercialization-oriented collaborations between engineers and physicians who traditionally employ differing methodologies are critical to the burgeoning field and to regional economic development. Pitt's Department of Bioengineering, established in 1998 as part of the Swanson School of Engineering and ranked as one of the nation's top bioengineering programs, is credited for developing many major biomedical technologies: cardiac-assist device for infants, a blood-treatment tool that can free patients from ventilator dependence, materials that help regenerate various tissues and organs, to name a few. ###


Neuroimaging Lab Postdoc Position

Bioengineering, Open Positions

The Neuroimaging Laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh has a postdoctoral research fellow position open immediately. The candidate should possess a Ph.D. degree in biomedical engineering, neuroscience, or a related field, and have published scholarly articles in peer-reviewed scientific journals. He/she should have a strong research background in system’s neuroscience, computation, neurophysiology (blood flow regulation, metabolism), neural engineering and/or data analysis (signal/image processing). Experience with rodent experimentation, advanced biological imaging (two-photon and optical microscopy), neural tissue histology and data analysis in MATLAB/Python are essential. The candidate will work on longitudinal imaging of rodent brain dynamics in health and disease. The candidate may also be involved in projects related to neural engineering and early detection of Alzheimer’s disease. He/she will be working with an interdisciplinary team of neural engineers, neurologists, radiologists, material scientists and biophysicists. Interested candidates should submit curriculum vitae, the names of three references, a statement of research experience, and date of availability to Alberto L. Vazquez (alv15@pitt.edu ). Information on the Neuroimaging Laboratory can be found on this website (http://neuroimaginglab.pitt.edu). The Departments of Radiology and Bioengineering are strongly committed to a diverse academic environment and places high priority on attracting female and underrepresented minority candidates. We strongly encourage candidates from these groups to apply for the position. The University affirms and actively promotes the rights of all individuals to equal opportunity in education and employment without regard to race, color, sex, national origin, age, religion, marital status, disability, veteran status, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, or any other protected class.

Neuroimaging Laboratory Website

Swanson School’s Ervin Sejdic among 2018 Chancellor’s Award winners

Bioengineering, Electrical & Computer

PITTSBURGH (February 23, 2018) … The Swanson School of Engineering’s Ervin Sejdić is among eleven University faculty members to be recognized with the University of Pittsburgh’s Chancellor’s Distinguished Teaching, Research and Public Service Awards at the annual Honors Convocation on Feb. 23. Dr. Sejdić, associate professor in the Swanson School’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, will receive the Chancellor’s Distinguished Research Award in the Junior Scholars category and receive a $2,000 prize and $3,000 grant to support research. Dr. Sejdić, who also has a faculty appointment in the Swanson School’s Department of Bioengineering, was selected for his work establishing the field of signal processing for swallowing accelerometry, and for significant contributions to multisystem quantification of the human gait. Chancellor Patrick Gallagher noted that this “groundbreaking work has earned you international standing in your field,” including more than $7.4 million for his research. “I am incredibly honored to be recognized by the Chancellor and the Pitt community for my research,” Dr. Sejdić said. “The strong collaboration between the Swanson School, the School of Medicine, and UPMC is a rarity among universities and has helped me to further my research. This award is a recognition of how those partnerships have established Pitt as one of the top research universities in the U.S.” In February 2017, Dr. Sejdić was among five Swanson School junior faculty to receive a CAREER award from the National Science Foundation, the organization’s most prestigious award for junior faculty who exemplify outstanding research, teaching, and their integration.  The five-year, $549,139 award would further his research using high-resolution vibration and sound recordings that would help doctors diagnose dysphagia and assist patients in improving how to properly swallow while eating or drinking. “This is a well-deserved award for Ervin and is a testament to his passion for life-changing research,” noted Alan George, Department Chair and R&H Mickle Endowed Chair of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “He is an inspiration for our faculty and students alike, and I look forward to his future success at the Swanson School.” ### About Dr. Sejdić Dr. Sejdić’s research interests include biomedical signal processing, gait analysis, swallowing difficulties, advanced information systems in medicine, rehabilitation engineering, assistive technologies, and anticipatory medical devices. During his undergraduate studies at the University of Western Ontario, Dr. Sejdić specialized in wireless communications, while his PhD project focused on signal processing. These two areas would influence his postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Toronto’s Institute of Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering, where he focused on rehabilitation engineering and biomedical instrumentation. He was also a research fellow in medicine at Harvard Medical School cross-appointed at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, where he focused on cardiovascular and cerebrovascular monitoring of older diabetic adults. Dr. Sejdić has co-authored more than 90 publications in the last five years and is the co-holder of seven patents. In 2016, he was one of four Pitt faculty and 105 researchers nationwide to receive the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. Government on science and engineering professionals in the early stages of their independent research careers.


Undergraduate mechanical engineering student places second at the AHA Research Fellows Day poster session

Bioengineering, MEMS, Student Profiles

PITTSBURGH (February 21, 2018) … Residents, fellows, postdocs, and medical students filed into the University Club to compete in the American Heart Association’s 26th annual Fellows Research Day poster session. Among this group of accomplished young researchers was Trevor Kickliter, a mechanical engineering sophomore in the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering. Kickliter works in the lab of David Vorp, Associate Dean for Research and the John A. Swanson Professor of Bioengineering, where he uses commercial and custom-built software to study vascular diseases. On a whim he decided to pick up some research that had been put on the back-burner, and what started as a side project in the lab turned out to yield interesting results that intrigued some of Vorp’s cardiologist collaborators. Kickliter joined a group of researchers and began to look at how to detect reductions in the coronary arteries of pediatric patients. Other members of the research team include Aneesh Ramaswamy, a bioengineering graduate student researcher in the Vorp Lab; Brian Feingold, a pediatric cardiologist at UPMC; and Justin Weinbaum, research assistant professor of bioengineering at Pitt. “Late failure remains a major cause of death after pediatric heart transplantations,” explained Kickliter. “When coronary arteries begin to narrow, it is a hint that heart failure may be imminent, and with pediatric patients, treatment is difficult when this reduction becomes severe.” Kickliter said, “Cardiologists struggle to detect this gradual reduction on angiograms so our group decided to develop a tool to quantify the progression of coronary arteriopathy, thereby mitigating human error.” Vorp added, “Machine learning tools have well-established uses in biomedical image analysis, and Trevor recognized that such a tool could be used to overcome the limitations of current human analysis in this application.” Kickliter and his team trained a convolutional neural network to automatically identify the arteries and any reductions that may be happening. “We collected 2D angiography data from pediatric patients following heart transplantation then selected and segmented individual frames to generate binary masks over the coronary arteries,” explained Kickliter. “These images and masks were used for the neural network, and the accuracy, precision, and area under the Receiver Operating Characteristic (ROC) curve -a plot of the true positive rate against the false positive rate- were used to assess its performance.” Excited by the promising results, Feingold encouraged Kickliter to submit an abstract to the AHA’s Fellows Research Day. The event’s poster session was judged by some of the region’s leading physicians and scientists. Though he faced competition from more experienced researchers, Kickliter, one of the youngest participants, won 2nd place and $250 in the clinical science category. “When Dr. Feingold suggested that we submit an abstract to the AHA Fellows Day, I was skeptical because my experience with these is that they are populated by very high-quality, polished MD residents and fellows, with an occasional post-doc,” said Vorp. “In most circumstances, I would not want one of my undergraduate researchers to be thrown to the wolves like this, but if anyone could handle the pressure, it would be Trevor. I am very proud of him and look forward to watching him continue to grow.” Kickliter and the other award winners were acknowledged at the Pittsburgh Heart Ball on Saturday, February 17, 2018 at the Pittsburgh Wyndham Grand Hotel. The group plans to continue research on this project. “This was really preliminary work, and there is still a long way to go,” said Kickliter. “We plan to improve the algorithm and train our network on a larger dataset to improve its performance. In the end, we hope that our work will help prevent heart failure in future pediatric heart transplant recipients.”

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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