High points amid the challenges

These reflections were written a few days before the killing of George Floyd and the tensions that have erupted across the country. At the end of the letter I’ve appended a message on how our community is taking action to create an inclusive and equitable department for all members of our community.

May 21, 2020  I’ve been chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering at UVA for nine years, and these last few months dealing with the COVID-19 crisis have been both the best and worst of my tenure. I have had to make some of the hardest decisions of my administrative career at the same time that I’ve been amazed and inspired by the resilience of our faculty, staff, and students.

  • Annual BME Tug of War

    The whole department poses after the annual BME Tug-of-War.

  • UVA BME faculty on a retreat

    The faculty gathered at Morven Farm for a department retreat.

  • BME Class of 2017

    A class portrait prior to the BME Capstone Design Symposium.

  • BME grad students at BMES

    A strong student presence at the BMES Annual Meeting.

  • Inaugural Class of BME-ME

    The inaugural class of the new Master of Engineering in Biomedical Engineering.

First, the challenges. Certainly, I am hardly alone in having to cut salaries and impose furloughs, but the particular structure of our department—half of our faculty and staff are appointed in the School of Medicine while the rest are appointed in UVA Engineering—has made acting on these measures particularly difficult.

The School of Medicine depends on the UVA Health System for a portion of its revenues, and due to markedly decreased Health System activity we have needed to make cuts on the School of Medicine side of the department. We generally feel like “we’re all in the same boat,” but in this crisis we’ve actually been in two different boats. Talking to hardworking BME staff members who happen to have School of Medicine appointments about furloughs was the low point for me.

The measures we have had to take to respond to the pandemic have taken their toll in other ways as well. My undergraduate advisees are unsettled by the closing of the university. There may be impacts to the immigration status of some of our post-docs. Many of our labs have had to pause experiments that represent years of research. They are just now getting restarted with research.

These are not abstract consequences. These are real costs.

At the same time, the impact of these measures was to some extent counterbalanced by collective resilience and generosity of individual department members. People seemed to bounce back from blows that might have been paralyzing. School of Medicine faculty members offered to take additional cuts to lessen the financial burden on staff. Those on the UVA Engineering side of the ledger are investigating how to contribute part of their salary to offsetting the cuts on the School of Medicine side.

One of the characteristics of the department’s experience, as I’m trying to suggest, is that great things arise side-by-side with the challenging ones.

One of the high points for me was the way our faculty took our undergraduate program online. We were fortunate in that one of our faculty members, Associate Professor Brian Helmke, has long been interested in innovations in teaching. In just four days after we decided to make the switch, Brian delivered a series of tutorials that helped bring everyone else in the department up to speed—and six days later we went live. The results weren’t perfect, but overall our classes were highly successful.

Graduate comprehensive exams and dissertation defenses happen over Zoom. Our BMES student chapter has maintained the social fabric of the graduate program. Similarly, we have kept our Friday seminars going, using internal speakers rather than guests. We’ve been having 70 or 80 people join for each session.

As I’ve mentioned, it is not always possible for all faculty members to fully continue their research programs, but our faculty are using the opportunity to analyze data, work on computational approaches, write grant proposals, and submit manuscripts. They have been incredibly busy. And our staff never miss a beat. They have been working remotely, making sure the business of the department is completed.

I have learned a number of lessons from this experience that I will carry into the future. The first is that our faculty, post docs, students, and staff were strongly connected to each other in ways that we have, perhaps, taken for granted.

We were a community before the pandemic emerged.

Our success in reconstituting our department online and adjusting to the economic consequences of the pandemic vdrew on that existing feeling of connectedness—although post Covid-19, we have become much more deliberate and conscious of it. I certainly value it more.

The second lesson, related to our sense of community, is the importance of trust. We trust each other to be fair, honest, and transparent. Again, trust is not something that can be manufactured in a moment of crisis but rather must be earned over months and years. That reservoir of trust that we had in each other before the crisis has served us well in dealing with it. I know it meant a lot to me, in the process of making cuts, that our staff trusted me to make the best possible decision for the good of the department.

To sum up, what I’ve learned is that the qualities and culture a department fosters during its normal course of business will determine its ability to weather a crisis successfully and to move forward afterwards. Although we will not emerge entirely unscathed, the connectedness and trust this department carries with it will help us restore our momentum and equilibrium once the crisis recedes.

May 29, 2020

Dear Students, Staff, and Faculty,

I am writing to you to acknowledge the pain and anger caused by the tragic events in Minneapolis last week involving the death of George Floyd.  Far too many members of our society are not treated with the fairness and justness they deserve because of the color of their skin. We stand in steadfast solidarity with the black members of our community and offer our heartfelt condolences to the loved ones of the victims.  From my own background, I have learned from Elie Wiesel who said that “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.” He also said, “The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference.”

In our department, we strive for inclusive excellence. It is essential that we increase our understanding of institutional structures that work against vast segments of our people. It falls on all of us to work together to end systemic racism and create an inclusive and equitable department for all members of our community.

We are a community of scholars, and it is never too late to educate ourselves on matters that affect Black Americans and other minority communities. As a start, I recommend the virtual workshop series organized by the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee of the American Society of Engineering Education. You can register for these workshops HERE.  

Our BME Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee in partnership with the Graduate BMES Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Chairs will hold a virtual town hall to discuss issues relevant to our department on Friday, June 5th at 2:00pm.  An email from GBMES is forthcoming and will provide details.

Respectfully, Fred

Fred Epstein, PhD Professor and Chair

Department of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Virginia

Fred Epstein says BME departments need to rework their curriculum to create data-driven biomedical engineers

Fred Epstein is a professor of BME and chair of the department. He develops magnetic resonance imaging techniques for assessing the structure, function, and perfusion of the cardiovascular system, particularly in the setting of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and musculoskeletal disease.