Creating biomedical, virtual-reality, servant engineers

If a local, seasoned biotech pro is asked to name a successful and growing biomedical university training program, odds are George Fox University’s emerging biomed engineering program wouldn’t come up in the conversation. Not yet anyway.

“That’s because we’ve somehow remained one of the region’s best kept secrets,” responds Robert F. Harder, Ph.D., Executive Dean of Industrial Enterprise and the founding Dean of Engineering at #ORBioMember George Fox University. Harder – who today oversees one of the area’s most comprehensive academic biomedical engineering programs – arrived at GFU in the late ‘80s with the direction and inspiration to launch the Newberg, Ore.-area college’s soon-to-realized Engineering program. Today, students create prosthetics, dissect human tissue in virtual reality and apply medical engineering smarts to real human problems.

If one is smart enough to have this well-run program on their radar, then the term ‘small’ doesn’t apply, either. In the mid-’90 the college grew beyond its rural roots, earning its accreditation and was christened George Fox University. Today the bustling university boasts 4,100 students who enjoy the more than 40 majors, adult degree programs, six seminary degrees, and 13 master’s and doctoral degrees.

Harder and his colleagues forged the BS program in mechanical engineering and electrical engineering in 2000, receiving ABET accreditation in 2004. The College of Engineering was founded in 2013 when the accredited program grew its focus to include computer engineering as well as civil engineering. But bioscience devotees will be especially happy to know in 2017, a core curriculum called Biomedical Engineering rolled out and this past spring, GFU graduated its first bachelor’s degrees in the biomed program.

The Biomed program now crosses over to clinical practice as it links to George Fox’s well-known Physical Therapy doctorate and a Physician Assistant master’s degree. Students in any of these now-connected programs have the opportunity to crossover allowing them to learn and innovate together. These interwoven and interdisciplinary offerings benefit students with intensive exposure to faculty and professionals as well as real world medical challenges.

On any given day, one can observe biomed students and the GFU expert faculty honing a prosthetic for a human hand that improves grip and strength over current models on the market. “Our students get intrinsic and quality hands-on experience,” adds Harder with a smile. Or maybe one will find them prototyping microfluidic devices for tumor-on-a chip personalized medicine applications.

Biomedical engineers at GFU use engineering ingenuity to solve medical and health-related problems. Often, they do research, in tandem with scientists, to develop and evaluate things such as artificial joints and organs, prostheses, instrumentation, medical information systems, health management and care delivery systems. Uniquely this one biomedical engineering concentration offers two tracks: one for medical device engineering and another for pre-health sciences focus that might lead to future health careers such as physician assistants, physical therapists, med school or numerous other health and bioscience professions.

In the world of biomed engineering academics, GFU students now have the opportunity to work in cellular biology, genetics, anatomy, physiology and more. “All the pieces are together in one place,” says Harder of the program that he has shepherded for more than three decades.

Of late, Harder has overseen the rollout of a virtual reality (VR) lab designed to discover biotransport via curriculum exploring tissue and rehabilitation engineering as well as medical device design.

The VR lab, financed by a generous private donor, is now beginning its life for students of anatomy and physiology, originally born out of necessity due to the shortage in cadavers.  Harder contends augmenting tissue discovery and anatomic identification by including virtual reality is pedagogically superior to solely using cadavers. “The tissue colors and presentation of cadavers are quite different than a live, functioning organic system, so the VR lab simulation in some ways is actually a better model than the real thing.” Magnetic resonance imaging technology and virtual tissue sectioning can also be accommodated by the VR lab, which is adjacent to a wet lab. “For our students, we’re focusing on increasing their access to better tools for enhancing understanding, increasing curiosity and achieving mastery of A&P content.”

Harder and his colleagues are diligent about shaping engineering and health sciences students’ approach to not only learning effectively now, but also to develop an affinity for “lifelong, universal learning.” “We teach curiosity, and help them make connections so they’re ultimately able to create value for customers.”

To this end, Harder and staff have inspired many ‘servant engineers.’ Servant engineering is a capstone-type program in which junior-year students form a pod with a faculty leader. Together they determine who they will serve and how. They can embark on application of the question, ‘How can I use engineering to help a person?’

“That is a wonderful a-ha moment for many students,” note Harder. He cites a recent project where the student group worked with a neurologist to help his patient who had lost her ability to walk.  The neurologist had an idea but to make it work he needed engineering know how. He needed to fashion a recumbent bike that could randomly and gently apply its brakes. The neurologist theorized this ongoing stop and start would be a kind of synaptic therapy as a way to retrain the patient’s thinking process and muscle memory. After a few sessions, the patient was able to walk short distances and was aided with the engineering approach.  Harder notes such emerging assistive technologies that create collaboration with the biotech industry will organically pull from virtual reality study and well as artificial intelligence usage.

About 20 servant engineering teams have been formed this year. In the past, teams have worked with the Legacy Health Burn Center to develop a highly specialized blade exchange mechanism used to remove damaged skin in a sterile environment. Another team has completed a gripper prosthetic that has been used by a student with deformed hand. Another team worked with TZ Medical on a vascular flow simulator. And yet another team worked to create an esophageal probe that can capture vital signs.

“Our mission is to inspire servant leaders and impact lives by engaging our empathetic students with not only theory, research and focused study but also application,” says Harder. With student teams winning honors through organizations such as Invent Oregon and successfully competing in the Grand Challenges Scholarship program of the American Academy of Engineering, it’s clear the Engineering focus at George Fox University has created the right proof of concept. # [Photo credit: George Fox University’s BioMed Engineering Program has students configuring and testing medical devices such as, pictured here, a heart monitor.]

Recent Posts

Archives