Stanford is a rarity as one of eight universities in the United States with strong ties between its medical and engineering schools, with hundreds of pieces of research resulting from the collaboration. Officials from the School of Engineering and the School of Medicine said that this collaboration is largely grass roots, springing out of faculty familiarity and mutual interests.
“The collaboration almost never comes from top down from the administrative level, but is rather based on individual faculty or students meeting each other, talking about what they do and finding a common or complementary interest,” said Russ Altman, chair of the Bioengineering Department.
Stanford does, however, offer some grant programs, such as BioX, in which the school specifically asks for grant proposals that require a team of two or more investigators who have never worked together. This requirement encourages interaction between faculty members of different departments.
Another such program is the biodesign program, which trains students from these different fields in inventing and implementing new biomedical technologies.
“In our designed program, fellows come in for either one or two academic years and are placed in teams half comprised of engineers that either have a master’s or Ph.D. degree as well as two years of work experience and the other half doctors that are at their residency point,” said Ari Chaney, executive director for technology translation for the biodesign program. “Our teams represent our beliefs – a combination of engineers and medicine skills leads to the best patient impact.”
The biodesign program, started 11 years ago, is an example of how the medical and engineering disciplines recognize the values of one another. Chaney said that the most important part is the process contributing teams undergo.
“Almost like a boot camp,” Chaney said of the experience. “We bring engineers and doctors to a common denominator where engineers know what issues there are in the medical field as well as the doctors understand the same vice versa.”
Through clinical immersion, the biodesign program challenges the teams to find and address clinical needs. Altman said that it is key that the collaborators have different specialties, each relevant to a research question. There is no professor matching and a lot of collaborative work comes from individual researchers’ interest in the work of others, he noted.
Altman calls this method “bottom-up” collaboration and often encourages faculty to work with others by recommending potential collaborators.
“A close relationship between engineering and medicine is very natural,” Altman said. “The medical doctor teams up with an engineer to make a product that could help a patient.”
According to Altman, working with graduate students is another way different faculty members get to know each other.
“A graduate student’s thesis committee is made up of three or four faculty members, and they get to know and talk to one another,” he said.
The student can serve as a vehicle of faculty interaction.
“Often one of the challenges is that, though faculty may have a collaboration idea, there is no one available to do the work,” Altman said. “When a graduate student arrives, they’re obviously the one that is going to be doing the work and learning techniques from different departments.”
Once collaboration is established, generally, the members teaming up negotiate first, settling on authorship and how to allocate credit. This prevents researchers from having the wrong expectations entering into collaboration.
“A huge aspect of the collaboration is of personal compatibility,” said Altman, who compared the process to dating. “In addition to being a good match in expertise, it’s important that the collaborators get along.”
Altman attributes the productive relationship partly to the physical proximity of the School of Medicine to the School of Engineering, since the move of the School of Medicine from San Francisco to Palo Alto in 1959.
“All the schools are on the same campus, coming in from all different parts of the University operating at high levels of expertise,” Altman said.
Chaney also recognized the rich resources that being in Silicon Valley offers to the collaborations.
“In the early stages of the projects, entrepreneurs from the area can provide funding or experienced managers,” he said. “And ultimately, the collaborations can make a difference to patients and to health.”
In the future, Altman sees only a closer interaction between the two schools.
“There is going to be a new bioengineering and chemical engineering building that will have an animal facility that will be for the engineering school,” Altman noted. “It’s going to create an easy gateway between engineers and the medical school.”
The building, which will host teaching labs and lecture halls on the first floor and offer shared facilities in the basement, is expected to be completed by the summer of 2014. Altman predicted that all the engineering departments in general “are going to be seeing a lot more biology.”
Stanford Hospital is undergoing a major expansion campaign, and while the new construction doesn’t directly impact the collaboration between the School of Medicine and School of Engineering, Altman said that the best clinical fellows are likely to be attracted to the Stanford School of Medicine and are likely to take advantage of the collaboration to innovate.