BY MARK SHWARTZ
The schools of Medicine and Engineering officially have joined hands by creating an interdisciplinary Department of Bioengineering that will begin admitting graduate students as soon as the fall of 2003. It is believed to be the first department at Stanford established and jointly managed by two schools.
The new department -- approved by the Board of Trustees on Friday -- eventually will offer bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees to students interested in combining biology-based research with cutting-edge engineering technology and clinical applications.
Philip Pizzo, dean of the School of Medicine, and Jim Plummer, dean of the School of Engineering, explained the rationale for creating the department in a written statement to the trustees.
"In the next century, human health and environmental sustainability will be, perhaps, the two greatest challenges for our world," they wrote. "Challenges such as these provide tremendous opportunities for contributions by science and engineering. If Stanford is to remain one of the top research universities in the world, it must tackle these problems aggressively and strategically."
The deans pointed out that, while Stanford faculty members have been debating the merits of a separate Bioengineering Department for more than 20 years, other top-ranking universities -- including MIT and the University of California-Berkeley -- have forged ahead by creating degree-granting programs of their own. But highly qualified students eager to major in bioengineering will find Stanford's new department particularly attractive, Pizzo and Plummer said.
"Stanford, unlike almost any of our peer institutions, has strong engineering, medical and basic science departments in close proximity to one another," they explained. The university also is located in the heart of Silicon Valley, which has the highest concentration of biotech, medical device and bioengineering companies in the world, they added.
"Bioengineering explores the principles of biology to develop applications that will protect, enhance and imitate biological systems and structures," the deans observed. "Engineering applications will harness this information at the molecular, cellular, tissue and organism level -- and will provide opportunities to make tremendous strides in human health and environmental sustainability."
In the next few months, Plummer and Pizzo are expected to appoint a department chair based on the recommendations of an internal search committee. Details of departmental finances will be hammered out by the new chair, who also will coordinate planning for the education programs and begin the process of recruiting faculty. A dozen new faculty billets in the School of Engineering and a similar number in the School of Medicine have been designated for the department. A number of current faculty members also are expected to join the department or take joint appointments in bioengineering.
The deans hope to have the master's and doctoral programs approved by the Faculty Senate by January 2003 and to begin accepting graduate students by October 2003. A Bachelor of Science degree program could be available to undergraduates by autumn 2005.
"Our goal is to be ranked in the top programs nationwide within the next five years, and to dominate the field within 10 years," Plummer and Pizzo said. "We already have tremendous strengths in the relevant disciplines. Both schools believe this new department will be a critical part of their national stature in the coming decades."
If fundraising efforts are successful, the Bioengineering Department eventually will have its own building. In the meantime, departmental headquarters will be housed in the Clark Center -- a new biosciences research building now under construction on Campus Drive West. The Clark Center is named for former engineering Professor Jim Clark, whose large donation in 1999 launched Bio-X -- a campuswide program designed to encourage interdisciplinary research in biosciences and biomedicine.
"At the research level, the new Bioengineering Department will be a subset of Stanford's Bio-X program," the deans wrote. "Because of its breadth and its research emphasis, Bio-X is not charged with developing a comprehensive curriculum or a degree-granting structure -- nor will it appoint or promote faculty. These activities will be left to the individual departments within which the Bio-X faculty reside, including the new Bioengineering Department."
Bio-X was the main topic at Thursday's meeting of the Faculty Senate, which also was attended by several university trustees.
Matthew P. Scott -- a professor of developmental biology and genetics who was appointed to a five-year term as Bio-X chair on Jan. 1 -- presented a progress report on the program. He told the senate that the success of Bio-X will depend on students, who, unlike faculty, have time to take interdisciplinary courses outside their field.
"I can't take two years off, but a student in my lab can take time to learn physics and bring it to bear on our problems in developmental biology, for instance," Scott explained. "Students will bridge fields, and these students in training are key to the innovations."
He said the Clark Center has room for about 40 faculty members, 30 of whom have been identified.
"Most of the rest will be new recruits," he added. "All of the recruiting, all of the billets, remain in the departments and in the schools. There's no such thing as a Bio-X or a Clark Center billet."
Noting that several untenured assistant professors have been given space in the building, Scott addressed concerns about the tenure process they will face.
"Some of the assistant professors will be away from any of the people who will be pronouncing judgment about their tenure," he noted, "so one of the things we're trying to be attentive to is that proper mentoring be available to all of the assistant professors who are in this building -- mentoring both by their home department and by people who are the neighbors in the building."
Scott maintained that, for the Clark Center to flourish, there must be a rapid turnover of faculty, students and staff.
"Otherwise, sooner or later, it will stagnate into the standard group where everybody pretty much knows each other, and the only question is do you want mustard," he remarked.
Scott was greeted with laughter when he added, "There's going to be a restaurant that seats 300 in there that you should all go eat at, or it will go bankrupt, probably."
University President John Hennessy reminded the senate that Bio-X is really an experiment -- an unprecedented effort to blend four schools and some 19 departments into a single program.
"The experiment can fail in two ways," Hennessy cautioned. "It
can fail if we end up with a building that is balkanized -- where
there's not interaction between the faculty teams. It can also fail
if it tries to be all things to all people, and we need to achieve
a middle ground between those two. If we can achieve it, I think
we'll have something all our peers will try to copy and do."
Stanford Report, June 19, 2002