The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Feature Stories

Improving Human Health

Biomedical engineering blends disciplines for medical innovation
  • Close up of chip design on yellow diagnostic patch

"Biomedical Engineering offers an opportunity to improve human health, to help real people.... The biomedical component is critical to identifying problems in health care that can be solved with engineering."

- Alex Smith

"A biologist, a doctor, and an engineer walk into a room . . .” could be an opening line for UMass Amherst’s Biomedical Engineering program. Launched in 2017, it blends engineering, medicine, and biology with the end goal of growing a talent pool to solve human health problems through interdisciplinary thinking and innovation.

"A biologist, a doctor, and an engineer walk into a room . . .” could be an opening line for UMass Amherst’s Biomedical Engineering program. Launched in 2017, it blends engineering, medicine, and biology with the end goal of growing a talent pool to solve human health problems through interdisciplinary thinking and innovation.

“Our campus has strength in biomedical engineering,” says Tilman Wolf, senior vice provost for academic affairs. “Now we’re putting structure around it.”

A first cohort of undergraduate students has completed its inaugural year in the program and the authorization of a graduate component and new faculty hires has begun. Space for the new discipline is being prepared in the campus’s Life Sciences Laboratories, home to the Institute for Applied Life Sciences (IALS). “Expect to see more advances—more interactions between researchers connecting in ways they haven’t before,” says Wolf.

Alex Smith, a mechanical engineering PhD candidate, envisions how the program will enhance his education. “Biomedical engineering,” he says, “offers an opportunity to improve human health, to help real people. Designing devices requires good engineering but the device will interact with a body, with human biology. How will the biology respond to the mechanical device? How will patients interact with it? The biomedical component is critical to identifying problems in health care that can be solved with engineering.”

Smith does just such discipline blending to find workable solutions. He and UMass colleagues Derek Lovley, Kelly Nevin, and Jun Yao have launched e-Biologics, a biomedical engineering start-up that took top prize in UMass Amherst’s 2018 Innovation Challenge. Focused on providing early detection of chronic diseases, e-Biologics is developing a small, inexpensive skin sensor patch, worn like an adhesive bandage, that noninvasively monitors biomarkers in a person’s sweat. If it senses the onset of a medical condition such as a diabetic complication, the patch can send an alert to a phone.

The campus’s investment in IALS, a significant portion coming from the Massachusetts Life Science Center (MLSC) to build out and equip centralized core facilities, is a big draw for companies like e-Biologics. Smith especially appreciates the connections IALS offers between people in industry and others on campus doing related work.

“Working with IALS is helping to create a culture around a common goal to talk about our ideas,” says Smith. “We’re developing tools that help people, tools that are used for a good cause.”

Karen J. Hayes '85