Bioengineering Research Draws Cornell Engineers from all Disciplines

By Chris Dawson

Poets and songwriters have called the heart a wheel, a fist, a soldier, a flower, a compass, a drum, a Wiffle Ball, a lonely hunter and a drunken idiot, to name just a few of the metaphorical comparisons that organ has been subjected to over the years. With apologies to writers everywhere, the heart is none of these things. It certainly may share some qualities with each of the listed items, (though one would be hard-pressed to explain how the heart is like a Wiffle Ball), but, in the end, the heart is one thing: It is a pump.

This is a functional truth. Millions of years of evolution have crafted a very efficient biological pump that, in humans, will beat approximately two billion times in the average lifespan. As unromantic as it may sound, acknowledging that the heart is a pump opens up all sorts of possibilities for treating the number one cause of death in the United States—heart disease. Cornell electrical engineer Wilson Greatbatch ’50 took this functional approach to the heart and it led him to invent the first implantable cardiac pacemaker in 1960. His invention continues to save millions of lives each year.

This focus on the mechanical and electrical nature of the heart is emblematic of the approach to biology and biological systems you will find throughout the many schools and departments of Cornell Engineering. The most obvious connection between engineering and biology is seen in Cornell’s Nancy E. and Peter C. Meinig School of Biomedical Engineering. But the connection really just begins there. Cornell Engineering offers 14 undergraduate engineering majors across a wide array of fields. And in each of the schools and departments there are tenured faculty whose work overlaps with that of biologists in some way.

“Bioengineering at Cornell doesn’t just live in one department,” says Lance Collins, the Joseph Silbert Dean of Engineering. “It is college-wide. We have tenured faculty members in several traditional disciplines that bring their deep knowledge and expertise of their discipline into the bioengineering mix.” While the Meinig School of Biomedical Engineering focuses on developing therapies, devices and diagnostics for improving human health, the broader field of bioengineering is a strategic focus area of the entire College of Engineering and something that sets Cornell Engineering apart from the crowd.

Because the terms “bioengineering” and “biomedical engineering” do not yet have fixed definitions, discussion of the topics can become confusing. Many colleges and universities use the terms interchangeably. At Cornell Engineering, the terms are not interchangeable. “Biomedical engineering” at Cornell focuses on a quantitative understanding of the human body across multiple scales to develop therapies, devices and diagnostics for improving human health. The term “bioengineering” at Cornell refers to the application of engineering principles to biology, but not always in the service of medical uses or human health.

Across the entire college you find people doing work in bioengineering. In the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering there are groups devoted to biosensors and biomedical devices. In the School of Applied and Engineering Physics many faculty are doing work in the field of biophysics. In the Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering there is a large and active biomechanics group.

Claudia Fischbach-Teschl, associate professor of biomedical engineering, believes that the blending of biology and engineering is essential. In a recent editorial for the magazine Pacific Standard, Fischbach-Teschl wrote, “Most cancer labs have ignored the physical context in which cancer cells develop because analyzing and recreating the physical properties of tumors is difficult and requires expertise cancer biologists do not have. Engineers could help with that.” Fischbach-Teschl’s example points out an important difference in the approaches favored by different branches of science.

Biological science has often focused on a reductionist approach. Instead of looking at an entire person, the drive in biology over the past many years has been a deeper and deeper specialization of knowledge. Researchers have made amazing strides in learning about organ function. Within organs researchers have isolated individual cells to see how they function and how they malfunction. Within cells, biologists have drilled down into how specific organelles work. Much of this work has happened in petri dishes or their equivalents.

The engineering approach, on the other hand, is quite often a constructivist approach. Systems are viewed in their entirety rather than in isolation. Engineers can take what biologists have learned about the many constituent parts of the system and combine this knowledge with a broader view. Where a biologist might focus on a specific cellular malfunction, an engineer might say, “This system isn’t working right; how can we fix it?” The forces acting on a system as it functions in the real world are taken into account. “For years, biology has played a pre-eminent role,” says Collins. “But we are now moving into the era of the engineer. This is an age where I don’t think you can do great biological research without an engineer.”

Marjolein van der Meulen personifies this productive combination of biology and engineering. Van der Meulen has a bachelor’s, a master’s and a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering and a position on the faculty of Cornell’s Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. And she is the James C. and Marsha McCormick Director of the Meinig School of Biomedical Engineering. Her research in orthopaedic biomechanics focuses on the interaction between mechanical stimuli and the skeleton, and the mechanical properties of musculoskeletal tissues. She is interested in the modulation of bone growth by mechanical loading and in the determinants of skeletal structure and load-bearing function.

Van der Meulen agrees that the future of biological research will increasingly include engineers in central roles. “Biological applications of engineering are a focus across the entire College of Engineering,” says van der Meulen. “Bioengineering will be a factor that sets Cornell apart from its peers. The next fifty years will see ever-increasing collaboration between biomedical engineers and researchers in other fields. In this regard, Cornell is in an excellent position to lead the field, since collaboration is in our DNA.”

The world will not have to wait fifty years to benefit from Cornell’s strength in bioengineering. Already, researchers across the college are breaking new ground and making discoveries that are making life better.

Ruth Richardson, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, studies the microbe Dehalococcoides ethenogenes in an effort to find the most effective way to use it to remediate groundwater contaminated by chlorinated solvents. “Microbes in general get a bad rap,” says Richardson. “The more we learn about them, the better we’ll be able to put them to work.” Richardson is also working with algae to identify high-performing strains that might be used to produce biofuels. Though she is a civil and environmental engineer, her deep knowledge of the biology of microbes is what makes her such an effective researcher.

Uli Wiesner, the Spencer T. Olin Professor of Engineering in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, uses his expertise with nanomaterials to fight cancer. Wiesner has created nanoparticles, called C dots, out of silica. He has then found a way to embed glowing molecules inside the C dots while coating them with several organic molecules that prevent attack from the body’s defenses and cause the C dots to bind with tumor cells when they come into contact. In the human body, these C dots can be used in conjunction with a specially designed optical imaging system to easily see if specific lymph nodes have been affected by cancer. The system is performing well in trials and could give patients and doctors a powerful new tool in fighting metastatic melanoma.

“Cornell Engineering is uniquely positioned to be a world leader in bioengineering,” says Collins. “In addition to a deep pool of talented faculty, there is a strong culture of collaboration across traditional boundaries between fields here. Add to that our close relationships with Weill Cornell Medical College, the Cornell Veterinary School and the Johnson School of Business and we are poised to lead the charge into the future of bioengineering.”

A professor whose work exemplifies the value of these collaborations is Abe Stroock of the School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. Stroock had some basic questions about the physical properties of liquid water under negative pressure. His search to find the answers to these questions has led him to a fruitful research project with viniculturalist Alan Lasko from the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station run by Cornell in Geneva, N.Y. Stroock and Lasko have created a chip that can be embedded in the stem of a grape vine to monitor water pressure inside the plant. The chip has a tiny cavity filled with water and contained by a nanoporous membrane. Water can move into and out of the cavity and the chip measures this movement and sends data wirelessly to a computer.

With enough chips, researchers could combine the data with data from similar chips in the soil around the plants to create a model of how water moves through the system and how water levels correspond with various qualities of the grapes. “I was interested in a purely scientific study of some of the properties of liquid water,” says Stroock. “This may seem like an odd thing for a chemical engineer to do, but plants have already solved a lot of engineering problems and this chip will allow me to start to see how they have done it.”

Stroock’s work, like that of many of the Cornell researchers doing work in the field of bioengineering, straddles several fields. His research encompasses plant physiology, physics, chemistry and biomolecular engineering. “This is one of the primary reasons I was interested in coming to Cornell,” says Stroock. “There is a great tradition here of having these multi-disciplinary centers. Cornell cultivates an atmosphere of collaboration across fields. Also, the quality-to-ego ratio here is wonderful. People do great work but their heads don’t get too big.”

One of the multi-disciplinary centers Stroock refers to is the Center on the Microenvironment and Metastasis at Cornell (CMM). The National Cancer Institute announced the creation of the CMM in 2009, with a $13 million grant. The center’s mission is to focus on using nanobiotechnology and other related physical science approaches to advance research on cancer. In other words, it is the job of the CMM to bring engineering to cancer research. There are tenured faculty from at least five departments within Cornell Engineering on the research faculty of the CMM. In addition, there are researchers from Weill Cornell Medical College, the University of Buffalo and the Cornell College of Veterinary Medicine.

“We are crossing barriers at a blinding speed,” says Collins. “Driven by these collaborations between engineers and biologists we are going to see a Moore’s Law pace of advancement in medicine and bioengineering. Cornell is just so well-positioned to be at the forefront of this new world. We have world-class engineers, a first-rate teaching hospital, one of the best veterinary schools in the world and now we have Cornell Tech with its Master of Science degree in Information Systems with a concentration in Healthier Life. All of the pieces are in place for Cornell to be a leader in the field of bioengineering.”