Our Continued Success Depends on Our Ability to Attract Outstanding Peoplefredepstein@virginia.edu
The University of Virginia is proof that good things come from strong research programs. We know that building a department around core groups of exceptional researchers — who are as passionate about education as they are about research — creates a sustainable structure that only becomes more dynamic, productive and influential over time.
The logic is straightforward: By cultivating multiple cutting-edge research programs, the department can offer more high-quality educational opportunities. This is because high-quality research greatly enhances a department’s ability to secure funding for ambitious graduate training programs and research experiences for undergraduates.
And cutting-edge research is not only self-supporting, it’s self-reinforcing. A department’s ability to attract creative, ambitious faculty at all levels is a direct reflection of its current faculty’s reputation. Success generates its own positive feedback loop.
We’ve certainly seen this in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at UVA. With vigorous core groups in four focus areas — systems biology and biomedical data sciences, tissue engineering and biomaterials, biomedical imaging, and drug and gene delivery — we’ve grown our research expenditures 114% over the past seven years.
In the past two years alone, our faculty have received multimillion-dollar grants in all of these areas, including awards for lung disease modeling, regenerative medicine, magnetic resonance imaging and the use of focused ultrasound to promote cancer therapy. Several of these projects are highlighted in our Fall newsletter.
Our successful research programs have also set the stage for us to secure a series of nationally-funded student training programs. The six programs we lead include a National Science Foundation-funded undergraduate research experience in systems biology and biomedical data science and two National Institutes of Health predoctoral training grants in biomedical data science and biotechnology.
The continued success of our research programs and the advantages they bring depends on our ability to attract outstanding people. In the past five years, we’ve brought researchers to our department from such top programs as the University of Michigan, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Carnegie Mellon. Our newest faculty member is Natasha Sheybani who has just received a prestigious NIH Director’s Early Independence Award.
We have also recruited a cohort of outstanding graduate students who are themselves highly successful in securing competitive fellowships. By the time they graduate, 55% of UVA BME doctoral students will have earned a fellowship from the National Science Foundation, American Heart Association, National Institutes of Health, the University of Virginia or a private foundation.
Seen from a larger perspective, biomedical engineering departments that are built around dynamic research programs benefit society not just through the discoveries and therapies that come from their labs but also through the quality of the students they send out into the world. These students are ready and able to tackle our most complex health care problems — and the pandemic underscored just how important this knowledge is to our future.
Fred Epstein, Ph.D., Mac Wade Professor and Chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Virginia (email)