First cohort of Virginia Tech undergraduate biomedical engineers set to graduate this spring
The new program – which bridges engineering fundamentals and biomedical science – is creating its own unique rhythm as its first students prepare for commencement.
Loulou Vos, a senior international student from Great Britain who competes on Virginia Tech’s varsity swim team, was looking for a major that was challenging, exciting, and gave her the ability to improve others’ quality of life.
“The biomedical engineering undergraduate program has exceeded my expectations,” said Vos. “Being part of something that has a direct impact – the potential to save lives – was the best part.”
Vos is one of 40 undergraduate students who will be receiving a biomedical engineering degree from Virginia Tech for the first time this spring. Like many of her classmates, she was initially drawn to the program because it bridged the gap between biomedical science and engineering, provided problem-solving experience, and prioritized real-world impact. With her senior design team, Vos is making a portable focused ultrasound device for cancer treatment. She said the project has given her more confidence as she transitions to industry after graduation.
“I loved the diverse nature of the program,” said Vos. “We gained a solid foundation our first year, and this last year we really saw the application of that knowledge. For example, I learned how medical devices get to the market. This gave me grounded hope to know that I actually can improve others’ lives. It makes the theoretical practical.”
Her project is just one example of the many opportunities students might choose to pursue through their coursework, senior design projects, or collaborations with program faculty.
Justin Laiti, who was named the department’s outstanding undergraduate student, chose biomedical engineering for its service opportunities. Laiti conducted research in the Center for Injury Biomechanics and learned about how wearable sensors for astronauts could help researchers understand their stress and workload. Ultimately, Laiti wants to work in the field of neuroengineering and use his knowledge of wearable sensors to advance treatments for mental health and neurological disorders.
“Service to me is about exploring ways to collaborate, in a mutually beneficial manner, with the communities around me,” he said. “My exploration of service has been a fundamental part of my experience as a student at Virginia Tech and as a member of the Blacksburg community, transforming the way I hope to engage within communities throughout my life.”
Building a program
In September 2018, the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia approved the new undergraduate degree program in biomedical engineering through Virginia Tech’s Department of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics. According to U.S. News and World Report, there are 175 schools in the United States with a biomedical engineering major. Virginia Tech’s program sets itself apart from others across the country with its emphasis on foundational mechanics.
“The advantage of our program is that it is distinct from other engineering majors,” said Jennifer Wayne, department head and professor in biomedical engineering and mechanics. “It addresses a societal need of having engineers with strong foundations and an understanding of how these translate to biomedical field challenges.”
Virginia Tech’s program requires six core courses in fundamental engineering principles, such as solid mechanics or dynamics, rather than focusing on pre-medicine. The structure enables students to gain a more comprehensive understanding of engineering practice and cross-disciplinary team building. Graduates are thus primed for placement in diverse fields, from biomedical device design to medical robotics.
Senior Jessie Whitmore, a seventh-generation Hokie, appreciated how the core courses complemented the program’s research component. She applied the foundational mechanics skills she learned in a materials course to her lab at the Hume Center for National Security and Technology wiring circuits and training artificial intelligence. During the summer of 2021, in Salem, Virginia, Whitmore continued advancing her skills while she worked on device design and formation for pacemakers during an internship at Integer in Salem, Virginia.
“I had many different lab experiences, and that has made such a difference,” Whitmore said. “I did not think the mechanics courses would apply to my interest in the human body, but those courses gave me additional knowledge to more fully understand.”
Virginia Tech’s first cohort of biomedical engineers, all students from the College of Engineering, started the program in the fall of 2019. In their second year, a global pandemic had transformed the shape of higher education.
Yong Woo Lee, associate professor in biomedical engineering and mechanics and instructor of the students’ biomedical cell engineering course, recognized the importance of continuing to offer experiential learning methods. So he designed the course with COVID-19 safety protocols that still allowed for hands-on work to help students understand cell growth and cell replication.
“This has been an experience unlike any other,” said Whitmore, who took Lee’s revamped course. “Adjusting to the pandemic was challenging, yet we were able to get hands-on experiences culturing our own cells.”
Establishing the curriculum for a new program during the pandemic resulted in both challenges and opportunities. At the start of the pandemic, the research labs where undergraduates often find a passion for discovery were temporarily shut down. Instructors had to be flexible and creative in developing hands-on opportunities for students.
Virginia Tech alumna Grace Wusk Ph.D. 2021, who developed a psychophysical monitoring tool for astronauts during spacewalks, taught a mostly virtual course on wearable biosensors that still preserved experiential learning for students. Wusk asked students to develop some physical object or item that receives input from bio-signals and then displays it as output for the course project. She mentored students throughout the project to encourage creativity while also providing guidance. Bridging engineering with fashion, Mariam Hasan and Leah Thomas both thought of designing dresses to display bio-signal output.
Hasan conceptualized a wearable dress, composed of material flames traversing up from the hem to the neck, with pulsing LED lights beating in rhythm with the heart, to appear as though it is on fire. Meanwhile, Thomas designed a water-inspired dress and headpiece that moves in rhythm with brain waves through the use of EEG sensors. Together, they decided to extend the project beyond the course and transform it into a fashion show. This innovative, transdisciplinary idea – creating clothing designs to represent all four elements: earth, air, water, and fire in collaboration with industrial design students – will be showcased at the university's ICAT Creativity + Innovation Day on May 3.
Hasan, originally from Northern Virginia, chose the program because it synthesized technology and traditional medicine. With interests in anatomy, design, medicine, and art, as well as a passion for social justice, Hasan had initially struggled to find an all-encompassing major.
“Biomedical engineering was the perfect place for me to pursue my passions,” said Hasan, who is graduating with an Honors Laureate Diploma with experiences centered in creativity and innovation. “My ultimate goal is to address health disparities and create technology to advance more equality, which I’ve started doing thanks to this program.”
The program’s reasonable size gave students the opportunity to work more closely with their instructors, to take interdisciplinary approaches to biomedical engineering, and to experience unique lab opportunities.
Applying engineering knowledge
“Our undergraduate program is unique because it combines entrepreneurship and commercialization of biomedical designs,” said N. Waldo Harrison Professor Pam VandeVord, who spearheaded the new undergraduate program. "We believe it is important to have young professionals trained in biomedical engineering because health care needs are changing across the world.”
After graduation, Vos, the student from Great Britain, hopes to contribute to making medical equipment more affordable, more environmentally friendly, and more available in developing countries.
Hasan similarly wants to address health disparities – specifically along racial divides – to improve quality of life for people in lower-income countries. Her aim is to continue her research, as begun in biomedical laboratories, with a focus on technologies that could be used to solve the racialized health inequalities in cancer treatment due to high cost and scarce resources.
Thomas, Hasan’s fashion show collaborator, will work as a biomedical engineer at medical technologies corporation Stryker after graduation. “Virginia Tech has given me the technical skills and training while also supporting my creative endeavors,” said Thomas.
Laiti, with his service-oriented focus, hopes to work in the field of neuroengineering and use his knowledge of wearable sensors to advance treatments for mental health and neurological disorders.
We are making waves in the field through our curriculum, students, and experiential learning opportunities, said Wayne. In only a short time, Virginia Tech’s biomedical engineering undergraduate program has established itself as a progressive player in higher education. Like an engineered dress pulsing to a heartbeat, the new program has used creativity and innovation to establish its rhythm.