The Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering (BME) at Georgia Tech and Emory celebrated its 20th anniversary with style, fortuitous timing, and a great view, last month at the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, which is on the 34th floor of 191 Peachtree Tower.
Two university presidents joined the Coulter community in the iconic two-headed Atlanta skyscraper to honor the unique biomedical engineering department, the largest in the country, shared by public and private institutions, and ranked among the best in the world.
The event coincided with the annual meeting of the Biomedical Engineering Society (BMES 2018), which is recognizing its 50th anniversary this year during a record-setting event at the Georgia World Congress Center, just around the corner from the Coulter event, which was entitled, “20 Years of Innovation, Inclusion & Impact.”
Though the department was actually approved in 1997, plans were finalized in 1998, in preparation for the first group of students in 2000. Explaining the birthday discrepancy, Coulter Department Chair Susan Margulies, who presided over Thursday night’s event, enchanted the room with a story about her grandmother.
“When she immigrated from Russia to Canada, she lied about her age,” said Margulies, a researcher in the Petit Institute for Bioengineering at Tech, and a Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar in Injury Biomechanics. “She gave us three different dates, so we never knew exactly how old she was. It’s kind of like this department – we’ll celebrate our 20th birthday for as long as we’d like.”
Margulies also introduced the gathering to the two presidents in the room – Claire Sterk of Emory University and Georgia Tech’s Bud Peterson.
Sterk thought back to the Coulter Department’s prehistory, when Georgia Tech Provost Mike Thomas and Emory’s Dean of Medicine, Tom Lawley, “decided they should explore something we can share between the two institutions, something in the biomedical engineering space. I was a young faculty member at the time, thinking, ‘how can this work?’ I could only see barriers. But, what people in this department have demonstrated over time is, we can take down barriers and take advantage of the strength of each institution.”
Peterson lauded the department’s record of inclusion. "BME is the first engineering program at Georgia Tech to be majority female, which is something we’re tremendously proud of," he said. "The thing I find most impressive is how transparent this boundary between our two institutions is. We complement each other in so many ways.”
He also quipped that, as president of Georgia Tech, the BME collaboration with Emory means he’s been “fortunate to have all the benefits of a medical school with none of the challenges.”
Throughout the evening, Coulter Department well-wishers – faculty, staff, alumni, and so forth – popped in and out to catch up, enjoy the view, tell stories. Many of them were going back and forth from BMES2018 at the World Congress Center.
This was a record meeting for BMES, and the Coulter Department, the diamond sponsor, had a booth at a busy intersection of the convention floor. This year’s event drew record numbers of abstracts (3,672), exhibitors (143), in addition to 963 oral presentations and 2,265 research posters.
“It was an awesome experience and it was great to showcase the work I have put in over the last year and finally be able to present the big picture of my findings,” said Ryan Rudy, an undergraduate researcher in the lab of Coulter Department Associate Professor Ed Botchwey. Rudy’s research is entitled, “Identifying the Active Sphingoloid Metabolic Pathways in Healthy and Sickle Red Blood Cells.”
“I talked with some really intelligent people who gave me constructive feedback and new possible channels to explore,” Rudy said. “Outside of my presentation, I went to a lot of the sessions about cardiovascular engineering and modeling, as well as tissue engineering. Seeing the innovative studies going on at other research institutions was eye-opening.”
Kristin Gao, an undergraduate researcher in Coulter Department Professor Ross Ethier’s lab, said the conference offered insight, “for those who wish to pursue graduate studies. It was rewarding to not only share my research, but also to learn about other areas of research from my peers. I really enjoyed getting to connect with alumni and professors.”
The BMES meeting will not be forgotten by anytime soon by Manu Platt, a Coulter Department associate professor and Petit Institute researcher. His lab saw to that, throwing him a surprise party for his 10-year anniversary.
“It was great to see so many Georgia Tech alumni, from my lab and others, for the BMES 50th anniversary, and more importantly to share their amazing work,” added Platt, whose former students are completing PhDs at places like Stanford and Michigan, or presenting postdoctoral work, or starting faculty jobs. “It really highlights the impact the Coulter Department has on the field.”
This year’s meeting also featured the first BMES High School Research Expo and nine students from Project ENGAGES, based in the Petit Institute and co-directed by Platt, participated. Two of them won awards. ENGAGES is a science education program serving minority students in six Atlanta high schools. “
“They will remember this forever,” said Platt, who also counted Paula Hammond's honest and inspirational speech at the Celebration of Minorities in BME luncheon as a highlight of the BMES meeting. Hammond, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, spoke frankly about finding strength through adversity and navigating difficult situations.
A few blocks away, at the Coulter Department birthday party, Margulies praised the work of students, faculty, and staff, giving special recognition to the department’s three previous chairs – Don Giddens, Larry McIntire, and Ravi Bellamkonda, who all served during critical moments in the department’s evolution, but could not be present.
“Don chaired during our infancy, and Larry nurtured our exuberant youthful growth, and Ravi was chair during the tumultuous teen years,” she said. “And I have the pleasure of leading our department into young adulthood. I expect that we’ll do many great things going forward.”