Bioengineering addresses unmet challenges that make a difference in the world

At UW Bioengineering, we devise innovative solutions to open-ended, unmet challenges in biology, health and medicine. Our faculty and students are exploring solutions in the following biomedical research areas:

  • “Smart” therapies for cancer
  • Biocompatible implants that resist infection
  • Nanoparticle contrast agents for enhanced imaging
  • Paper-based diagnostics for home healthcare and global health
  • Adaptable prosthetics for amputees
  • Engineered heart cells for improved cardiac function post-heart attack
  • Biomimetic materials to prevent gut infections
  • Miniature cell culture tools for studying neurobiology
  • Synthetic organisms for biofuels
  • “Catch” bonds for novel adhesives
  • Photonic biosensors for blood typing
  • High intensity focused ultrasound to stop bleeding
  • Computational methods for assessing brain growth and development
  • DNA, protein and glycan microarrays for drug development

The Bioengineering approach is integrative and innovative

Bioengineers have the tools to approach unmet challenges from multiple perspectives.

Let’s examine the challenge of developing better cancer therapies. Current cancer therapies are marginally effective and have adverse side effects. Biochemists, computer scientists, biologists and bioengineers approach this problem differently.

Biochemists focus on chemical and biological processes at the molecular level. They ask questions like: “What is the molecular basis of cancer?” and “What makes cancer cells unique?”

Computer scientists focus on software and electronics. They ask questions like: “How can computers be used to create new cancer therapies?”

Biologists focus on chemical and biological processes at the cell and tissue level. They ask questions like: “How do drugs work at the cell, organ and animal level?” and “Where in the body do drugs work and how do they cause toxicity?”

Bioengineers perform applied, translational research that integrates biochemistry, computer science and biology. They focus on molecular-level characterization, device-level fabrication and societal-level design considerations. They ask questions like: “Given what we already know about cancer therapies, how can we make them more tolerable and effective?” and “What new cancer therapies are possible?”

describes different approaches to cancer therapies

Let’s examine the challenge of treating cardiac damage and failure. The heart can be irreversibly damaged and fail due to diabetes, heart disease, and heart attacks. Biochemists, mechanical engineers, material scientists, and bioengineers approach this problem differently.

Biochemists focus on chemical and biological processes at the molecular level. They ask questions like “How does heart muscle work?” and “What is the molecular basis for heart tissue death?”

Mechanical Engineers focus on mechanical and fluid properties and behavior. They ask questions like: “What are the tensile properties of healthy versus diseased heart tissue?” and “Can we model the flow of blood through the heart?”.

Material scientists focus on material properties and behavior. They ask questions like: “How can we design materials for implants that will not degrade when in the body?”

Bioengineers work closely with biochemists, mechanical engineers, materials scientists and clinical collaborators in cardiology. They focus on making a difference in the world through improved health. They ask questions like: “Can we re-engineer heart proteins to pump more efficiently?”, “Can we design novel implantable medical devices that the body does not reject?” and “Can we grow new heart tissue to replace damaged tissue?”

describes different approaches to treating heart damage and failure

Let’s examine the challenge of diagnosing disease. Diseases are often detected late, which can affect the efficacy of treatment. Also, in some places around the world, traditional disease diagnostic tools are too expensive, too complex for local physicians to use effectively, or otherwise out of reach. Chemical engineers, physicists, electrical engineers, and bioengineers approach this issue differently.

Chemical engineers focus on chemistry at interfaces. They ask questions like: “Can we engineer nanoparticles and surfaces to behave in interesting ways?” and “What are the thermodynamic processes at play during host-pathogen interactions?”

Physicists and chemists focus on fundamental physical properties of matter. They ask questions like: “Why do nanoparticles behave differently from  microparticles?” and “How can we use light in new ways to detect things?”

Electrical engineers focus on electronics and photonics. They ask questions like: “Can we create novel electrical devices (ultra low power and/or miniaturized) that might have diagnostic uses?”

Bioengineers work colesly with chemical engineers, physicists, electrical engineers and physicians. They focus on integrative solutions with global applications. They ask questions like: “Can we design nanoparticles, biophotonics and paper to detect disease earlier, rapidly and inexpensively?”, “Using paper or hand-held ultrasound, can we make low-cost, point-of-care diagnostics to move testing out of hospitals?” and “Can we integrate diagnostics with smartphones to make a difference globally?”

Describes different approaches to disease diagnostics

Bioengineering is richly collaborative and interdisciplinary

Bioengineering focuses on integrative applications and solves problems left unanswered by engineering and physical/life science disciplines.

Wheel diagram of how Bioengineering integrates other scientific and engineering disciplines

Bioengineering is the only degree that bridges engineering, biology and physical science

By studying bioengineering, students participate in a truly unique academic experience. Fields such as Applied Mathematics, Computer Science and Engineering, and Electrical Engineering explore connections between engineering and the physical and quantitative sciences. Biochemistry and Oceanography form at the intersection of the life, physical and quantitative sciences. Civil and Environmental Engineering applies engineering principles to specific life science disciplines.

However, only Bioengineering reaches across the boundaries of nearly every scientific and engineering major available at the University of Washington.

Diagram describing how bioengineering integrates other scientific and engineering disciplines

Still interested in Bioengineering?

Here are eight questions to find out if our program is right for you.

    1. Solving open-ended problems: Do you want to develop novel solutions to challenging, real-world problems?
    2. Quantitative approach: Are you interested in employing quantitative tools, including simulation and mathematical modeling?
    3. Biology, health & medicine: Are you interested in solving problems in biology, health and medicine to improve human lives?
    4. Independent research & design: Are you eager to conduct cutting-edge independent research and design projects (in vitro, in vivo or in silico) mentored by leading bioengineers?
    5. Hands-on learning: Do you enjoy learning by doing, through labs, projects and research?
    6. Team-based problem solving: Do you enjoy working with smart, mature and diverse team members to solve problems creatively?
    7. Broad knowledge: Are you excited by the prospect of acquiring broad knowledge spanning engineering and the physical and biological sciences?
    8. Cohort experience: Are you excited to progress sequentially through a core curriculum with a cohesive, talented cohort of BioE peers?

If you answered yes to all the above questions, then Bioengineering at UW may be perfect for you! Do not hesitate to contact us to learn more.