A new undergraduate program is underway at Virginia Tech: 40 second-year students from the College of Engineering have joined the first cohort of biomedical engineering majors within the Department of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics, as of this past fall.

Students in the program will be trained to bridge the gap between traditional medicine and technology. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the demand for biomedical engineers is expected to increase over the next 10 years, particularly for health-related services and products.

For seventh-generation Hokie Jessie Whitmore, the start of the degree program was fortuitous, and joining the first cohort was a dream come true. “I experienced a few major injuries as a child and was told my lower arm and hand would be paralyzed,” said Whitmore. “A physician with biomedical knowledge was willing to venture out — engineering a new solution — to help me heal. That was a life-changer for me, and I want to pay it forward.”

As part of their first year as biomedical engineering majors, the students are enrolled in an introduction to biomedical engineering course that includes collaborative projects with hands-on learning. During the first week of second-semester classes in January, students analyzed, took apart, and pieced together an assortment of medical devices.

“This new biomedical engineering undergraduate program is based on a strong foundation in fundamental mechanics and biomedical principles with focus on technology transfer and health care,” said Jennifer Wayne, professor and department head of biomedical engineering and mechanics. “We are training our students to be successful engineers, ready for the workforce.”

The curriculum provides students with a more comprehensive understanding of broader engineering practice and cross-disciplinary teambuilding, both seen as important assets in industry.

Instead of concentrating instruction in biology and pre-medicine, the program requires six core courses in fundamental engineering principles.

“Our undergraduate program is unique because it combines entrepreneurship and commercialization of biomedical designs,” said Pam VandeVord, the N. Waldo Harrison Professor and biomedical engineering undergraduate program chair. "We believe it is important to have young professionals trained in biomedical engineering because health care needs are changing across the world.”

First cohort of biomedical engineering majors have the opportunity to dismantle medical devices
[Picture taken January 2020] The first cohort of biomedical engineering majors started the semester with hands-on learning. Students had the opportunity to dismantle medical devices. Students had fun taking them apart and learned a lot, including gained knowledge about devices' general properties, functionality, and mechanical design. Photo by Spencer Roberts of Virginia Tech.

The first cohort will graduate with a biomedical engineering degree in 2022. Sixty students will be admitted the second year, and 80 students will be admitted the third year, and then the cap will be lifted the fourth year.

“When I heard this major opened up, I jumped at the chance to apply,” said Jenna Sims, second-year engineering student and member of the Marching Virginians, Virginia Tech’s marching band. “I have always liked math and science, so engineering was a good fit. In high school, I volunteered at the hospital and enjoyed helping others. I never wanted to work behind a computer — I want to work with others. Someday, I hope to work with medical devices, co-designing devices to help improve others’ lives.”

“My passion for biomedical engineering started at a young age as I witnessed many family members struggle with neurological illnesses,” said David Norfleet, student in the first cohort of biomedical engineering. “I chose Virginia Tech’s program for two reasons. First, my goal is to gain the necessary skills in school to be able to develop medical devices for damaged nervous systems, like those I saw in my family, to offer better solutions for people. This program gives me those skills. Second, I instantly felt at home here.”

Norfleet transferred to Virginia Tech from Elon University. The research and hands-on learning opportunities offered to undergraduates in Virginia Tech's new biomedical engineering program convinced Norfleet that joining the first cohort would enable him to reach his goals.

First cohort of biomedical engineering majors have the opportunity to dismantle medical devices
Students enrolled in the first Introduction to Biomedical Engineering course as majors had opportunities in experiential learning that began as soon as the first week of classes. A myriad medical devices were brought in for students to dismantle, as shown in this picture, January 2020. Photo by Spencer Roberts of Virginia Tech.

Loulou Vos, also part of the first biomedical engineering cohort, is an international student with interests in biology, physics, math, and science. Vos chose Virginia Tech for its excellence in academics and to join the varsity swim team. Virginia Tech stood out to her due to its nurturing and inclusive environment.

“I decided I wanted to pursue biomedical engineering because of its transdisciplinary nature,” Vos said. “The engineering part gives me a challenge, which is something I need in a career. I think about the ways I can make people’s lives better. That is what drew me to biomedical engineering. I hope to contribute to making medical equipment more affordable, more environmentally friendly, and more available in developing countries.” 

-Written by Laura Weatherford