First cohort of Virginia Tech undergraduate biomedical engineers set to graduate this spring | VTx

Learning curves

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.