UND Today

University of North Dakota’s Official News Source

Future focus: Intersection of medicine and engineering

Innovative new program combines strengths of North Dakota’s big research universities

Ali Haider, Ben Johnson and Reza Fazel-Rezai
Ali Haider (left), a UND Ph.D. student in electrical engineering, adjusts a headpiece on Ben Johnson, a recent UND electrical engineering grad, for a Brain-Computer Interface project to assist people who have difficulty communicating because of disorders such as Lou Gehrig’s disease. UND Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering Reza Fazel-Rezai (far right) monitors the experiment. Photo by Jackie Lorentz.

Imagine the ability to quantify concussion recovery in high school athletes, monitor the effectiveness of medication for Parkinson’s patients in rural areas, predict when someone with epilepsy will suffer a seizure, or even track treatment effectiveness for arthritis. They are also working on a brain-computer interface to control devices for people who can’t communicate, such as people with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease).

Those are just a few of the projects that will be expanded as part of the new biomedical engineering graduate program, which begins accepting students this fall.

It combines already strong areas in the UND College of Engineering & Mines, the UND School of Medicine & Health Sciences (SMHS), and the NDSU College of Engineering into a collaboration and research powerhouse that will offer new opportunities to students and faculty.

And faculty have already started working across disciplines to find solutions that serve the people of North Dakota.

“I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it’s been,” said Reza Fazel-Rezai, paraphrasing hockey great Wayne Gretzky. “Biomedical engineering is where the puck will go.”

Working together

The field, which bridges engineering and medicine, prepares students and researchers to create devices and solutions that improve quality of life, said Fazel-Rezai, associate professor of electrical engineering and director of the biomedical engineering program at UND. “It’s a program for the future.”

“This is a new way to think and work together,” said Colin Combs, chair of biomedical sciences at the SMHS. He believes that some of the current projects will result in devices to help physicians better monitor patients, especially in rural areas. “A major part of our mission is to serve the people of North Dakota,” he said. “This will result in novel approaches to address health-related problems within our communities.”

“This is what the future looks like for medicine and healthcare,” said Kenneth Ruit, SMHS associate dean for educational administration and faculty affairs. “It’s important to develop technology, medical devices, and interventions that provide quality care to patients. Biomedical engineering is at the center of this.”

The two-year master’s and four-year doctoral programs begin this fall and will be offered on campus and online. A minor and focus in biomedical engineering are already in place for undergraduates.

Job prospects are bright. “There is a lot of need for this,” said Fazel-Rezai, citing job outlooks from the U.S. Department of Labor, which project that employment in the field will grow by 23 percent by 2024, compared to 7 percent for all occupations. Graduates work in hospitals, research centers, universities, industry, and private companies and start their own companies as well. “There are hundreds of biomedical engineering companies in the Minneapolis metro area,” Fazel-Rezai said.

“This field has a direct impact on people’s lives,”Fazel-Razei said, citing ultrasound and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), which were both developed through collaborations with engineers and healthcare researchers.

Ben Johnson and Reza Fazel-Rezai
An innovative new UND-NDSU program, which combines the expertise of biomedicine and engineering research, is developing devices that may track signals in the brain and might detect seizures before they happen for people with epilepsy, among other projects. Photo by Jackie Lorentz.

Discovery-based learning

Projects include developing devices for people with epilepsy that track signals in the brain and may detect seizures before they happen. They are also working on a brain-computer interface to control devices for people who can’t communicate, such as people with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease).

And they’re finding ways to better assess the impact of concussions in conjunction with Mark Romanick, professor of physical therapy. “When football, soccer, hockey players have a concussion, the traditional way to assess the brain injury is to have them answer questions,” said Fazel-Rezai. “A better way to assess progress is to use a device that tracks the differences in brain signals as the recovery progresses.”

Combs and Fazel-Rezai are also working with Sanford Health and Jau-Shin Lou, professor and chair of neurology at the SMHS, to quantify the progression of Parkinson’s disease and explore the possibility of using sensors to help doctors prescribe the right dose of medicine. “We can send the device home with the patient, and physicians can prescribe at a distance,” Fazel-Rezai said. This especially benefits patients in rural areas.

“This has the potential to be very innovative,” said Ruit. “A program like this enhances opportunities for students and scholarship. NDSU has strengths, and we have expertise at UND that complements that. It’s not duplicating NDSU’s work.” And, he said, a program like this will enhance the profile of both institutions.

“Now is the right time to do this,” said Daniel Ewert, recently retired professor of electrical engineering at NDSU, whose focus is cardiovascular engineering and wireless biomedical sensors. “If we thought of the biomedical engineering program as a startup company, the program needs to have a unique niche.   I think that our cooperation between two universities, our emphasis on start-up companies, and our discovery-based-learning model make us unique.”