History

A Tradition of ‘Engineering For Life’

The Department of Bioengineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign celebrated its 10th anniversary on December 9, 2013, but biomedical research on the Illinois campus has a long, storied history that began more than six decades ago.

A legacy of bioengineers: (left to right) Dept. Head Bashir, Provost Adesida, former Dept. Head Insana, founding Dept. Head Wheeler, and Dean Cangellaris at the 10th Anniversary Celebration. December 2013.
A legacy of bioengineers: (left to right) Dept. Head Bashir, Provost Adesida, former Dept. Head Insana, founding Dept. Head Wheeler, and Dean Cangellaris at the 10th Anniversary Celebration. December 2013.
Research in what would later be called bioengineering began in the 1940s with Prof. William Fry, who pioneered the use of ultrasound as a way to study the central nervous system. He founded what would become the Bioacoustics Research Lab, which continues as a major laboratory for ultrasound research at the University. Fry's research interests also included the development of mechanical and artificial hearts, for which he filed patents in the late 1950s and early 1960s. His ultrasound research led to more advanced medical practices for treating patients undergoing neurosurgery and for disorders such as Parkinson's disease and intractable pain. Dr. Fry, who died in 1968, is credited with establishing one of the foundations of bioengineering — and a new field of study — the medical application of ultrasound for therapeutic purposes.

In 2003, Paul C. Lauterbur, Bioengineering affiliate faculty member, was recognized for developments in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) -- completed largely in the 1970s -- with the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, which he shares with Sir Peter Mansfield of the University of Nottingham in England. Lauterbur, who died in 2007, was among the first scientists to use nuclear magnetic resonance in the studies of molecules, solutions and solids. MRI, which revolutionized the medical profession, continues to be a significant area of study in the Department of Bioengineering.

A bioengineering program was established at Illinois in 1973 for undergraduates in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and in 1987, it was recognized as a special program in the College of Engineering.

On December 9, 2003, the Illinois Board of Higher Education approved the formation of the Department of Bioengineering in the College of Engineering, allowing the granting of Bachelor of Science, Master of Science, and Doctor of Philosophy degrees in Bioengineering. Dr. Bruce Wheeler, Professor Emeritus of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Florida, served as the first department head, followed by Dr. Michael Insana, Donald Biggar Willett Professor in Bioengineering at Illinois, who led the department from 2008 to 2013 and continues to teach and conduct research at Illinois. In August 2013, Dr. Rashid Bashir, Abel Bliss Professor and former director of the Micro and Nanotechnology Laboratory at Illinois, became head of the Department of Bioengineering.

The department accepted its first class of 22 undergraduate and 3 graduate students in 2004, and today the department serves more than 250 undergraduates and 70 graduate students. Students benefit from 15 fulltime core faculty in the department and more than 50 graduate program faculty from across the university.

The range of disciplines involved in the Department of Bioengineering has increased greatly over time, with research continuing to evolve in the area of bioimaging at multi-scale and further expanding in molecular, cellular and tissue engineering; bio-micro/nanotechnology; computational bioengineering; synthetic bioengineering; and health care systems engineering.

At the intersection of modern cellular biology and systems engineering, the Department of Bioengineering at Illinois today is a multi-disciplinary, cross-collaborative program in the College of Engineering. It is focused on engineering for life with a new view of human health and disease and the continuation of those early-established efforts in revolutionizing health care worldwide.

Bioengineering students describe their research at the poster session during the 10th Anniversary Celebration of the founding of the Department of Bioengineering.
Bioengineering students describe their research at the poster session during the 10th Anniversary Celebration of the founding of the Department of Bioengineering.