by Carol F. StoelUnder the direction of Forest Hills neighbor Dr. Lara Thompson, a new biomedical engineering program is taking shape at the University of the District of Columbia.
The program is part of UDC’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), which is expanding its offerings to meet growing needs of the community and of students who want to work in the most advanced and promising areas. Professor Thompson is the initiator and director of the program. She also runs a new laboratory focused on biomechanical and rehabilitation engineering and is the principal investigator for a $400,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.
Thompson joined UDC in 2014 after completing her doctorate from the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology. She holds a master’s degree in aero/astro engineering from Stanford University and a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Massachusetts-Lowell.
In a recent interview, she told me that of more than 100 historically black colleges and universities (HCBUs) nationwide, the University of the District of Columbia is now only one of two that specifically offers a Bachelor of Science in biomedical engineering. Referred to as “BME” for short, this is a new, multidisciplinary and rapidly growing field with obvious health and medical implications. Unfortunately, however, workers in BME occupations have limited diversity, with Hispanics, African Americans and women comprising only a small percentage of the workforce. Here’s a great role for UDC to play!
The biomedical engineering degree program received full-board approval at UDC in the fall of 2014, and courses began in fall 2015 with 40 students declared interest in pursuing the BME track. At present, the BME program is housed within the Department of Mechanical Engineering. Its laboratory, the Center for Biomechanical & Rehabilitation Engineering, is taking shape in Building 32 with new equipment to conduct research on mobility and balance impairments in elderly (health and fall-prone) and patient populations (such as stroke survivors, amputees, vestibular loss subjects), balance aids and devices, and sports-related injury prevention and treatment.
Recently-installed equipment includes a Tekscan force plate that measures ground reaction forces of the subject’s feet, a state-of-the-art VICON Motion Capture system that collects body kinematics/movement data, and the Delsys surface electromyography (sEMG) system to record muscle activation/inactivation. Also, the NaviGAITor system will provide partial bodyweight support for those participants unable to balance independently during testing.
Thompson is emphatic in support of her students’ professional development with new and relevant BME courses and a UDC SEAS professional development series, including an “Introduction to Engineering” guest lecture series and BME Journal Club sessions where students learn what is being written in their field.
Thompson’s strong commitment to student development and her passion for the content of the work has attracted promising students. I had the pleasure of interviewing three outstanding seniors who are looking forward to exciting futures.
Charles Wilson came to UDC from the Early College program at Friendship Collegiate Academy and took advantage of getting some of his freshman courses out of the way while still in high school. He is interested in going into the private sector, and is hoping to continue his studies at the University of Maryland, where he’d like to focus on robotics and bioengineering.
Steven Cale is a transfer student from Howard Community College. His interest in engineering started in high school, where he took five engineering courses as part of a program called Project Lead the Way. At the end of February, Cale presented “Studying the effects of athletic training on postural control” at the NSF Emerging Researchers National Conference in STEM. He is looking forward to graduate school in aerospace engineering at the University of Maryland (ranked ninth nationwide) and is aiming for a future career at NASA – and perhaps even the astronaut corps.
Beachrhell Jacques, originally from Haiti, is also a senior in mechanical engineering. Out of more than 450 applicants, Jacques was selected to serve as an HBCU All-Star student ambassador for the White House Initiative on HBCUs, relevant to advance President Obama’s Executive Order 13532, Promoting Excellence, Innovation, and Sustainability at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (2015-2016). She is one of 83 student ambassadors nationwide and Thompson is serving as her mentor.
Furthermore, Jacques has presented her research work conducted with Dr. Thompson on “The Development of a Home-based Postural Rehabilitative Device: the Analysis of Gait Using Portable Harness Ambulatory System (PHAS) Prototype” at the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students in Fall 2014. She was selected for a summer internship with Boston Scientific in 2015 and this past fall applied to Ph.D. programs in mechanical engineering and bioengineering with a plan to go into private industry. The three seniors will get their undergraduate degrees in mechanical engineering and then specialize more at the next stage.
Thompson also told me of another student, Medhi Badache, who is a junior majoring in mechanical engineering and considering BME. He recently had the distinction of having his abstract titled “Investigating Center-of-Pressure Parameters to Quantify Athlete and Non-Athlete Balance” accepted towards a Technical Paper Publication to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers International Conference, 2016. He also was awarded a summer internship at Boston Scientific.
With the anticipated rapid growth in population of DC’s metro area, the program will meet expanding needs by developing a diverse BME workforce aimed at solving problems in human health. Dr. Lara Thompson and the new Biomedical Engineering initiative came along at the right moment to inspire and nurture these promising young engineers.