Inside the target-smashing bioengineering department at UT Dallas | Top Universities

Inside the target-smashing bioengineering department at UT Dallas

By Niamh O

Updated May 13, 2021 Updated May 13, 2021

Dr Shalini Prasad, professor and head of the bioengineering department said: “The growth is meteoric as there was grass-roots advocacy by the faculty and staff along with the vision from university leadership."

The University of Texas at Dallas launched its bioengineering programme in the Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science in 2010. 

Officials at the university hoped to enrol 300 students by the 2020 academic year – but the programme surpassed that goal in just three years; the current enrolment of bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral students has climbed to 719 students.  

But why has the programme surpassed proposed targets? We caught up with Dr Shalini Prasad, professor and head of the bioengineering department, and Nathan Churcher, who earned his bachelor's degree in bioengineering in 2019 and is now a PhD student in the programme, to find out more. 

Development over a decade 

Prasad (pictured below) explains how the department of bioengineering grew from four faculty and 26 students to become the largest undergraduate programme in Texas with over 600 students. 

Dr Shalini Prasad UT Dallas

She said: “The growth is meteoric as there was grass-roots advocacy by the faculty and staff along with the vision from university leadership. 

“DFW is the fourth largest metroplex in the US and the location is a magnet for high-quality talent in students and faculty and we have the vision to leverage these opportunities to transform the training of the next generation of biomedical engineers to help bridge the physician-scientist continuum.” 

Nathan notes how much the faculty stood out to him. He said: “They are extremely passionate about what they are teaching and a willingness to ensure the success of students. 

“They would go out of their way to ensure concepts were understood and we had more than enough help in completing assignments. It isn’t just a teach, pass or fail situation; most of the faculty endeavour to know us on a personal level and build relationships which are extremely helpful.” 

Prasad thinks the programme has been able to entice students because it resonates with the idea of experiential learning. 

She said: “The undergraduate programme content has been carefully crafted to ensure students are able to work on multiple projects through a problem-based learning approach. At graduate level, the research excellence of our faculty has attracted top quality graduate students from across the world. There is a string spirit of entrepreneurship that entices students.” 

Standout elements 

Prasad says diversity in the student body is a major selling point at UT Dallas – with an approximately 50/50 gender split on programmes at all levels. Nathan notes the ability to collaborate with others and the chance to dabble in different fields stand out most about the bioengineering programme. He added: “Also, the wealth and experience of the faculty is inspiring.”  

But what is the department looking for in prospective students? Prasad says curiosity, passion, lateral thinking with an eye to innovation and entrepreneurship, and commitment to experimental, multi-disciplinary learning.  

She said: “Articulate the passion driving you to pursue this discipline. There are programmatic requirements, but besides this UTD BE is all about access, inclusion and building and training a strong, vibrant, and diverse student body towards finding engineering solutions to reduce health care challenges.” 

Nathan (pictured below) was a transfer student into UTD’s bioengineering programme as an undergrad – something he says made him anxious about the prospect of not fitting in or failing, but he admits the transition was a smooth one.  

Dr Shalini Prasad nathan churcher UT Dallas

He said: “Yes, it’s not the easiest of majors, but my genuine surprise was the faculty’s willingness to help students persevere and succeed. 

“Even though the programme was still fairly new at the time, all the players involved from the faculty, staff, advisors and fellow students were all very much welcoming and accommodating in ensuring that my time in the Bioengineering department at UTD was an enjoyable and fulfilling journey.” 

Nathan says he would recommend the bioengineering programme to prospective students hoping to make their way in the field tenfold – namely because bioengineering is a multi-disciplined field with several integrated branches.  

He said: “Bioengineering is keen on training students in that integrated environment. There are collaborative partnerships within the department and other schools in and outside the school of engineering at UTD from Chemistry to Material Science.  

“Bioengineering at UTD affords the opportunity to experience the different aspects in our six research areas in the field.” 

Nathan says prospective students should be willing and ready to constantly learn and be enthusiastic. He said: “While things may prove difficult especially in the first year, consistently push through and don’t be afraid to ask for help. 

“It’s okay to feel inadequate or like an impostor at times, we all do at some point but like I mentioned before, strive to learn.” 

And as he continues at UT Dallas while pursuing his PhD, there’s still a lot Nathan hopes to achieve at the university and within the industry.  

He said: “I work in the Biomedical Microdevices and Nanotechnology Lab (BMNL) under the supervision of Dr Prasad. 

“My research in her lab entails the development of platforms capable of quantifying biomolecules found in sweat for disease diagnosis and management. 

“We just had our work accepted for publishing in the Electroanalysis journal which details our preliminary work in the development of platform with the capability of measuring neuropeptide-y and cortisol simultaneously towards the management of stress.” 

Future of the bioengineering industry  

Nathan believes there are vast opportunities for the bioengineering field to grow. He said: “I see bioengineering as a bridge between medicine and engineering providing arenas and tools necessary to ensure the smooth, easy and efficient way of caring for patients. 

“In the niche area of bioengineering that I work in; Biosensors and microdevices, I see a translation into better, more efficient point of care devices that are not only limited to just steps taken in a day but that can give a holistic sense of one’s health and capability of liaising with medical personnel to avert and or manage disease progression.” 

As a woman in the industry, Prasad has seen many changes over the years – but admits it hasn’t been easy. 

She said: “It’s challenging to be heard and taken seriously. There is perception bias that needs to be overcome. 

“However, in order to be successful, I have found that building awareness towards the goal through education and then taking a community centric approach by making the goal a shared goal has helped me advance. It is critical to build a team and use the strengths of the team to push forward.” 

But when looking at the future of the bioengineering programme at UT Dalla, Prasad says the next 10 years will be focused on building upon the strong foundations. 

She said: “Interacting with our medical school towards creating clinical engineering training opportunities that will help our students re-imaging health care solutions; drive innovation thought public private partnerships to drive concept to creation for engineering solutions towards health care.”

This article was originally published in May 2021 .

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Written by

Niamh is Deputy Head of Content at QS (TopMBA.com; topuniversities.com), creating and editing content for an international student audience. Having gained her journalism qualification at the Press Association, London and since written for different international publications, she's now enjoying telling the stories of students, alumni, faculty, entrepreneurs and organizations from across the globe.  

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