By Barbara Maynard ’88
LEWISBURG, Pa. — Bucknell's biomedical engineering major is only three years old, but its students have already made their national debut.
In October, 12 Bucknell undergraduates traveled to Chicago to the annual fall meeting of the Biomedical Engineering Society, and four of them presented the results of their undergraduate research projects.
Senior Erica Andreozzi gave two presentations: a poster on work she did at Bucknell and a talk on a summer research program at Clemson University.
Professor Dan Cavanagh, director of Bucknell's biomedical engineering program, said the presentations were a strong testament to the hard work of both the faculty and the students to develop the new program.
"We had very good representation at the meeting, considering that we only have 53 students in the whole program," he said. "We had about a dozen students there and five presentations given. It gives some validation as to the program we've put together and to our students' abilities."
Two students worked with Cavanagh to study fluid flow in the bloodstream. Andreozzi examined how tiny particles, about one-tenth of a millimeter in size, move around a bend in a tiny channel she built to simulate blood vessels. "We can eventually work toward trying to separate particles out of a solution, such as trying to separate blood cells from plasma," she said.
Senior Lauren Shafer studied how bubbles act within small channels. Air bubbles can get into the bloodstream during open-heart surgery or other procedures that require draining and then refilling blood vessels. Once in the blood, the bubbles can cause various problems.
"If they travel to your toes, for example, you may get numbness in your toes," Shafer said. "If they travel to your brain and block capillaries there, they could cause a stroke." Understanding how air bubbles move through the bloodstream could help to develop ways to break them up and prevent problems.
Juniors Adhira Sunkara and Meghan Howes each presented research they did with biomedical and electrical engineering professor Joseph Tranquillo, using computer simulations to examine electrical signals in the heart.
Independent research valuable
As impressive as the research was, Cavanagh emphasized the process more than the experimental results. Each student was in charge of her project from the initial design to the final interpretation.
"This ability to identify and plan and execute and wrap up an independent research project is a very valuable skill," Cavanagh said. Regardless of whether a student is headed to graduate school, industry, or another path after graduation, the experience of independent research will be a strong asset.
Traveling to a national conference not only gave the students feedback on their own work, it also showed them a wider world of biomedical engineering.
"It was really interesting to see what kinds of research every one was doing, and what kinds of different fields there are in biomedical engineering," Sunkara said. "It's such a vast field, so it was good to get a feel for the all the possible areas."
Faculty hands-on approach
The students' ability to carry out independent research is no doubt due in part to the hands-on approach to learning that the faculty have taken. Engineering courses can get caught up in theory and mathematics, leaving practical application behind.
"If all you do is study the math behind it, and you don't ever get your hands on anything, it leaves you with this very non-concrete picture in your mind," Tranquillo said. "When you need to use information later, it's not there in anything other than this abstract, theoretical form."
At the conference, Tranquillo gave a talk, co-authored with Cavanagh, on the teaching methods the Bucknell faculty have used to incorporate hands-on learning throughout the curriculum.
As Bucknell's first class of biomedical engineering majors moves toward graduation this spring, the seniors reflected on their undergraduate experience.
"In our program we got so much personal attention," said Andreozzi, who is vice president of the Bucknell chapter of the Biomedical Engineering Society. "I learned so much more than I would have gotten out of a large class where you don't get so much interaction with your professors."
Shafer agreed. "The opportunities here are absolutely amazing for an undergraduate university," she said.
Posted Nov. 27, 2006