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Joint biomedical engineering program grows rapidly in 10 years

UNC Chapel Hill Microbiome Core Facility. Research and support for the study of complex microbial communities.
UNC Chapel Hill Microbiome Core Facility. Research and support for the study of complex microbial communities.

With a well-known engineering school 25 miles down the road, UNC is hardly a top option for engineering students.

But thanks to the growth of a collaborative effort, UNC might be moving in that direction.

Since its start in 2003, a joint biomedical engineering program with N.C. State University and UNC — lauded for its medical school — has grown rapidly.

Initially, the joint program was only offered to graduate students, but beginning July 1, the program will be open to undergraduates through the College of Arts and Sciences.

Biomedical engineering, which uses engineering skills to solve problems in medicine, requires both medical and engineering facilities, making the partnership between the two schools a clear choice, said those involved.

“UNC has a fantastic school of medicine, but it doesn’t have an engineering school. And N.C. State has a fantastic engineering school, but no school of medicine,” said Paul Dayton, associate chairman of the biomedical engineering program.

Dayton said that the idea of the program was to pull together the schools’ strengths.

“It gives them a very broad education and it gives them a lot of opportunities,” he said.

Last year, top UNC administrators placed an emphasis on the potential for evolving the University’s applied sciences. In the discussions, Chancellor Holden Thorp voiced a desire to stay away from opening a new school, but said he was open to the idea of furthering a joint venture.

Interest has grown considerably in the program, which now has 21 faculty and more than 100 students, said Nancy Allbritton, chairwoman of the program.

“We are doing things that really help people live better lives,” she said.

Allbritton said biomedical engineering is currently the fastest growing field in the U.S.

“The employment potential is huge,” she said.

But the program is facing some problems.

“One of the challenges right now is there is not good transportation between UNC and N.C. State,” he said.

Fifth-year biomedical engineering Ph.D. student Ryan Gessner said he likes the program’s access to resources at both schools.

“(N.C.) State has great things UNC wouldn’t have,” he said.

The program is expected to grow even more in the coming year as it is added to the College of Arts and Sciences.

“We are starting to be looked at as a contender,” Gessner said.

With the growth in popularity of biomedical engineering majors in the past years, Dayton said he expects the program to attract more top students to both schools.

Dayton said students can apply at UNC or N.C. State and if they are accepted, they are granted student status at both campuses.

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Allbritton said the program is not about competition.

“We don’t want to talk about competition, we want to talk about working together,” she said.

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