Linking Veterinary Medicine with Biomedical Engineering

Friday, May 3, 2019

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A doctoral program in biomedical sciences bridges two kindred disciplines

Dr. Main oversees the work being conducted by a graduate student in his lab
Dr. Russell Main works with a graduate student in his laboratory.

A unique PhD program capitalizes on synergies and a long-standing history of collaboration between the Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine and the Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering.  The Interdisciplinary Biomedical Sciences (IBSC) Program is co-lead by Dr. Russell Main, associate professor of basic medical sciences in the College of Veterinary Medicine, who holds a joint appointment in the Weldon School, and Dr. Young Kim, associate professor of biomedical engineering.

The IBSC Program serves as a medically-oriented program for scientists who wish to work in such areas as implantable medical devices, biomaterials, drug delivery strategies, diagnostic sensors, and especially engineered physiological systems (EPS) (e.g., organ-on-a-chip) and bioimaging technologies (BIT). The program emphasizes novel collaborative training opportunities for students by interfacing engineers, scientists, and clinicians in Purdue Veterinary Medicine and the Weldon School.

portrait of Dr. Main in his lab
Dr. Russell Main

A doctoral program spanning the two units makes organic sense because many of the biomedical devices, engineered tissues, and other research areas being explored at the Weldon School are prime for testing in small animals, according to Dr. Main. “The natural steppingstone is to go from development in a lab, to maybe a small rodent model, to a larger mammalian model, and then on to the human clinic,” he explained. “Making the technical and animal health experience from the veterinary college available to the biomedical engineers just naturally leads to collaboration.”

Dr. Kim agrees and suggests that the relationship between the two institutions is symbiotic. For example, a project in his lab involving hemoglobin will produce outcomes potentially affecting both humans and animals, he said.

Originally created as the Biomedical Sciences Doctoral Track in 2004, the program was renamed in 2012.  Both Purdue Veterinary Medicine and the Weldon School develop and deliver financial and administrative support for the program. “Our goal is for the program to serve as a bridge for the students between the two units,” Dr. Main said. “If you have a student working on a collaboration for four or five years, it helps to develop a mutually beneficial research program and enriches the student’s experience in both the applied and basic sciences.”

The doctoral program prides itself on attracting students from diverse educational backgrounds, including the basic sciences, such as chemistry and biology. A recent graduate, Evan Phillips, currently a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Illinois at Chicago, came to the Purdue program with strengths in imaging techniques, which he enhanced as he researched aneurysms using rodent models.

Purdue Engineering faculty and students value the broad knowledge base that the program’s students bring to their labs. Likewise, the IBSC students’ immersion in engineering labs exposes them to new experimental and analytical approaches and a prevalent translational mindset, representing cross-pollination of ideologies and technical skills.

Compared to most doctoral programs, the IBSC Program stands out for several reasons.  For one, the linkage between Purdue Veterinary Medicine and the Weldon School is a major advantage for students.  Secondly, it is open to students from varied backgrounds, which fosters a stimulating exchange of ideas and expertise.  Thirdly, students are advised by co-mentors from both veterinary medicine and biomedical engineering, giving them access to the best minds from both worlds.

portrait of Dr. Kim in a lab
Dr. Young Kim

“We encourage the students to have one mentor from engineering and one from veterinary medicine, so they have a good understanding of both areas,” Dr. Kim said. “The co-mentorship exposes students to the whole pipeline – innovating something at the bench, but also seeing, through discussions with clinicians and scientists, how it might lead to a clinical application,” Dr. Main added.

Students are recruited into the program by a set of co-mentors and can share time in their mentors’ labs, supporting development of their thesis research. “In this way, they can focus all of their energies on nurturing the collaborative bridge between the Weldon School and Purdue Veterinary Medicine, and on fulfilling their degree requirements, instead of spending time in other labs that may or may not bear fruit,” Dr. Main explained.

IBSC students also have a seminar requirement in both the College of Veterinary Medicine and the Weldon School, which gives them a lot of exposure to a whole range of biomedical engineering subdisciplines and clinical cases, Dr. Main said. The hope is that the students will make connections between the techniques they’re learning in the biomedical engineering world and clinical cases to which they are exposed at the College of Veterinary Medicine. IBSC also plays a key role in furthering collaboration between the Purdue College of Engineering and Indiana University School of Medicine.

Since Dr. Main and Dr. Kim took charge of the program in 2015, they have focused on increasing recruitment by spreading the word across campus and at national conferences. Their efforts have been paying off.  The number of new students enrolled in the IBSC Program has grown from only one or two students each year to as many as six students annually.

Writer(s): Poornima Apte |

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