C. Ross Ethier stepped into his post as interim chair of the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering on August 1. A month later the news broke that the Coulter Department (a joint department of the Georgia Institute of Technology and Emory University) was ranked No. 1 on U.S. News and World Report’s latest rankings of the nation’s undergraduate biomedical engineering programs.
“We’re still pretty charged about that news, and I’d love be able to take credit for it, but you know, it’s just being in the right place at the right time,” says Ethier, BME professor, Georgia Research Alliance Lawrence L. Gellerstedt, Jr. Eminent Scholar in Bioengineering, and faculty researcher with the Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Bioscience.
Ethier, whose research has netted groundbreaking discoveries in the areas of glaucoma and VIIP (a condition affecting astronaut health in long-term space missions), took on his temporary role in the wake of previous chair Ravi Bellamkonda’s move to Duke University.
Ethier’s appointment coincided with a period of dramatic growth for the Coulter Department, which continues to expand its mission, adding world-class researchers and educators to its faculty roster. The interim chair took some time recently to discuss the department’s status and growth.
“Let’s start off with the ranking,” he says. “That’s a good piece of news and everybody likes to be number one.”
• OK, what about that ranking?
Ethier: “It’s definitely an attention grabber. One of the defining characteristics of undergraduate education here is our innovative, problem-focused curriculum. That’s been part of our Departmental DNA. We’ve always encouraged our students to be fearless in their approach to complicated problems, not to be constrained by preconceived notions about what is or isn’t ‘too difficult’. We have worked hard to inculcate that mindset in students, so that they can go out there and do the things that will change the world, quite frankly.”
• Are there specific activities within the undergraduate program that stand out for you?
Ethier: “One that springs immediately to mind is BME Healthreach that Wilbur Lam leads. Undergraduate BME students at Georgia Tech teach math and science to patients at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, using their own disease or condition as the focus for learning. The patient is taught in a highly contextualized way, which makes learning a good bit easier, and our students are seeing first-hand what is involved in the clinical care of a pediatric patient who may have a long-term condition. This is one of those fantastic wins for everybody involved.”
• This is a time of transition for the Coulter Department, with a national search ongoing for the next department chair. Meanwhile, the department hasn’t exactly stood pat on pursuing its strategic goals.
Ethier: “No it hasn’t. On the contrary. We continue to grow our faculty both at Georgia Tech and at Emory, and we’ve specifically identified areas that we’d like to continue hiring in.”
• Such as?
Ethier: “A good place to start is an area that we see huge traction in: personalized medicine driven by big data. There are all kinds of medical data now being delivered in real time. And there’s huge potential to mine that data to understand and better treat disease, to personalize the treatment of disease. It’s going to be transformative, and we need people who understand the data science side, people who are quantitatively literate and can work with that complex information within a clinical context. The CODA building that is being developed in Tech Square will be a big data computational hub, and Georgia Tech and Emory will have a footprint there. We’ll be well positioned to contribute to that effort and lead the medical side of the biomedical side of the equation.”
• What are some of the other faculty hiring and research priority areas?
Ethier: “Stem cell engineering is one, and it’s related to the Marcus Center project that Krish Roy has been heading up. We also see imaging as a big factor in our approach to personalized medicine. There’s a revolution happening in terms of functional imaging, which is very technology driven, and it’s a very good fit for BME. We’re also recruiting in cancer technology, and that meshes well with our imaging and big data endeavors. But basically, it’s about looking at technologies that help us better diagnose or better treat cancer. That can be around robotic surgery. It can be novel functional probes. It can be around imaging modalities designed to understand basic biological processes in a lab setting. We still don’t understand a lot of the basic biology of cancer.
Basically, our message is, ‘we’re open for hiring.’ You know, I’m constantly humbled and honored by the innovative work of our faculty, the exciting programs they are developing and the fresh new outlook they bring to important problems in biomedical engineering. There is a can-do attitude that is part of the institutional mindset, and we’re fortunate because we tend to get the best people and turn them loose on the world’s medical challenges. It’s a reflection of the institutional commitment from senior leadership at Emory and Georgia Tech.”
• With the growing number of faculty members, and more than 1,300 undergraduate students and 200 graduate students, this is the biggest BME department in the country. So, a lot of brainpower. That said, what are your thoughts on diversity within the department?
Ethier: “Well, a lot has been made of the fact that we now have more female students than males. To me, it’s personally very heartening and I’m very proud of the fact that we’ve historically had and continue to have good gender parity in our students. There aren’t as many women as we’d like to see in leadership roles, though I think that’s getting better. I’m excited that we recently had two women, Johnna Temenoff and May Wang, promoted to full professor. Further, we’ve always tried to be very welcoming to underrepresented minorities, and there’s still work to do there. It’s an important part of what we are and what we aspire to be.”