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New Online Course in Biomedical Engineering Offers Training Worldwide

This fall, the online distance education arm of the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS) began offering a biomedical engineering (BME) master's degree program for the first time.

Now people all over the planet have the opportunity for training in one of the most important disciplines in the new century, one that impacts virtually every dimension of society.

"There is a rising demand from industry and students, both nationally and internationally, for graduate-level study in biomedical engineering," says SEAS Dean Zvi Galil. "We are fortunate to be able to meet this need through the Columbia Video Network (CVN), our top-rated distance-learning program. By offering a master's degree-level program in biomedical engineering via the World Wide Web, we are able to bring the possibility of a Columbia graduate degree to all qualified students, regardless of their physical location or work schedule."

"Biomedical engineering" refers to the use of engineering principles and processes to solve medical and biological problems. Biomedical engineers straddle the border between engineering and life sciences, combining the knowledge from each to isolate and solve problems in biology and medicine. The fruits of their efforts include cardiac pacemakers and defibrillators; artificial kidneys and joints; and research into biomaterials (new materials manufactured by using or "aping" biological processes) for tissue replacement or wound healing. The first BME online course is on "Tissue Engineering."

Columbia has long been a pioneer in the biomedical engineering field, offering courses as far back as the 1960s. An actual BME department, chaired by Van C. Mow, was established in January 2000 to take advantage of the inherent synergies between Columbia's medical school expertise and that of SEAS.

The department's recent effort to set up an online BME master's degree program pays further tribute to its progressiveness. It helped that Laksen Sirimanne, who recently earned a master's in electrical engineering through CVN, took a personal interest in making the new program happen.

The holder of 11 patents, the California-based biomedical engineer recently invented a heart valve that can be implanted through the leg, thereby obviating the need for open-heart surgery. In the process, though, he realized he was spending an enormous amount of time getting newly hired engineers up to speed on the rudiments of medicine -- namely, physiology and anatomy.

Sirimanne was surprised to discover that "despite some 800 medical-device companies on the West coast, only a handful of schools offer biomedical engineering courses. Oddly, many of these focused on ultra-sound equipment."

He also noticed that even fewer BME courses were available online, which is a major disadvantage for working engineering professionals, but which also plays to CVN's strengths. "Lots of people can take two years off from their jobs to earn an MBA," Sirimanne noted, "but what happens to engineers who can't afford to take off the four years required to get an engineering masters? Where can they go?"

While searching Columbia's CVN Web site one day, he learned they were thinking of starting a BME program. "These were the very courses I needed to teach my staff. So, I thought, why not get Columbia involved?"

A veteran of online engineering courses, Sirimanne was already taken with CVN's "superior attitude towards students and the level of support from faculty and staff. I've taken many courses at many universities, but in terms of student treatment, getting back to us with information, replying to e-mails and treating me like a valued customer, Columbia is unique," he says.

Sirimanne's approach to CVN was well timed. Executive Director Grace Chung and her staff had been lobbying for years to have the BME master's placed online, but to little avail. They appreciated having some outside pressure, especially when SEAS Dean Zvi Galil and other professors quickly grasped the potential and acted.

"I found it so impressive," says Sirimanne, "that the department would listen to someone in the industry because we're not your traditional students and can't go back to school full-time. But we are very serious about it. Columbia should be proud of what it's done."

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Published: Oct 19, 2005
Last modified: Oct 19, 2005

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