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Bioengineering major ramps up

Bioengineering, one of the most recently formed departments on campus, has only been a graduate level program for five years and was not available to undergraduates until the beginning of this school year.

But despite its relative youth, the program is already ranked within the top 10 in the nation for its graduate component.

This year, only a handful of students have declared majors in bioengineering. There is a great deal of interest in the major, however, according to Jim Plummer M.S. ‘67 Ph.D. ‘71, dean of the School of Engineering.

“We are worried that the number of undergrads considering this major may overwhelm the BioE department,” wrote Plummer in an e-mail to The Daily.

This prediction is based on anecdotal information, as well as the popularity of bioengineering programs across the nation. Johns Hopkins University is currently ranked first in the nation with a major they call biomedical engineering, which is the largest department within its engineering program.

While some students are interested in the mixture between engineering and pre-medical programs, there are additional factors that draw students in, according to Leslie Tung, director of the undergraduate biomedical engineering program at Johns Hopkins.

“Others are interested in the access that our department provides to clinical laboratories through ongoing collaborations,” Tung wrote in an e-mail to The Daily.

Such interests are similar to those of Travis Urban ’11, who entered Stanford looking to major in biology and get a coterminal degree in bioengineering. With the addition of the bioengineering undergraduate degree this fall, Urban decided to make the switch.

“They opened up the major, so I thought I would just take a stab at it,” Urban said. “I had to go talk to the guy who designed the major, but in the end, he let me go forth, for better or for worse.”

Urban’s interest came from research he saw being done by professors into areas like synthetic biology and metabolic engineering. A particular study included reengineering bacteria to design medicine.

“It’s a more cost effective way of producing a complex drug,” Urban said. “For me, that’s what fired me up about bioengineering. It seems like a really cool facet of the major, or one area that the major covers that I wanted to explore in-depth.”

Over the next five years, the Stanford program is expected to continue expanding, and professors are hoping that along with this increase in size comes even greater prominence in national rankings — perhaps reaching the top three in the near future.

“Within a few years, it will have a 21st century home when the fourth building is finished in the SEQ [Science and Engineering Quad] II,” Plummer wrote. “We believe the intellectual focus of the department (based on quantitative biology), is the right focus. This contrasts with many other BioE departments, which are much more strongly focused on biomedical applications.”

Over the next five years, the program is expected to expand through the addition of 25 faculty members. The principal unknown component remains the undergraduate program, which began last quarter with some organizational issues, despite the great interest.

“The first bioengineering undergraduate course I took was last quarter,” Urban said. “They didn’t have a syllabus — we were told a midterm would happen in the middle of the quarter, and we didn’t know when it would happen.”

Urban estimated that between 30 and 35 students arrived on the first day of class. This number was slimmed down to a core of seven, including six declared bioengineering majors, he said.

The curiosity shown by freshmen in the new major, however, could be a positive sign of future popularity.

“It’s moving in the right direction,” Urban said.

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