The Buzz on Bioscience
Biomedical engineering at Georgia Tech has risen from a handful of projects to national prominence in just two decades. Today, more than half of all incoming freshman pursue a degree in biomedical engineering, biochemistry, or biology. These students want to both understand living systems and make things that improve people’s lives.
Now, more than ever, those opportunities are plentiful in biosciences at Georgia Tech, where researchers are creating medical devices for children, understanding how diseases occur, improving vaccines, and building better biomaterials for drug delivery. Georgia Tech’s unique blend of engineering, biology, chemistry, and computing — along with partnerships with world-class medical facilities in Atlanta, such as Emory University and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta — has transformed the Institute’s campus into a magnet for bio-minded scientists.
“What we bring to the table is a new perspective in the biological sciences that is data driven, that is quantitative, that focuses on devices and techniques and on being unafraid to ask fundamental questions,” said Ravi Bellamkonda, the chair and professor of the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory University. “It’s a different approach to biology as an engineer.”
The rise of biomedical engineering at Georgia Tech has created a ripple effect across the biosciences on campus. Biologists studying genetics, ecology, and personalized medicine are collaborating with engineers to solve challenging medical problems. The bio quad, home to the Parker H. Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Bioscience (IBB); the U.A. Whitaker Biomedical Engineering Building; the Ford Environmental Science and Technology (ES&T) Building; and the Molecular Science and Engineering (M) Building, already forms a hub of interdisciplinary research. Soon, other collaboration-oriented buildings will be added, solidifying the Institute’s commitment to developing its bioscience portfolio, which touches everything from mechanical engineering, to electrical engineering, to materials science and engineering.
Bioscience the Georgia Tech way has attracted high-profile faculty, such as M.G. Finn, pioneer of click chemistry and rumored Nobel Prize candidate. Also flocking to campus are fresh young minds, such as Susan N. Thomas, an assistant professor in the new field of immunoengineering. These researchers and others, who might not have come to Georgia Tech even 10 years ago, say that the Institute is already making a dent in some of the world’s biggest medical challenges, and is poised to do more. Nascent fields of research, such as immunoengineering, systems biology, pediatric bioengineering, chemical biology, and biomanufacturing, are emerging strengths on campus, positioning Georgia Tech to help define what these fields become. Georgia Tech is already recognized as a leader in regenerative medicine, cardiovascular engineering, neuroengineering, and mechanobiology.
“Considering what had been done in the past 10 years, I thought the next 10 years at Georgia Tech would be pretty exciting,” said Finn, the interim chair and professor of the School of Chemistry and Biochemistry. “Very few places in the world — if anywhere — will embed fundamental science in with applications science and technology better than we do here.”
Building a bioscience community from scratch was a big risk, especially at a top-ranked engineering school. Visionaries such as Ajit Yoganathan, Robert Nerem, and Don Giddens took a chance and formed a partnership with Emory University in the late 1990s. They started the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory University, a rare joint department between a public and a private university. The partnership has been an overwhelming success, with the graduate program ranked second in biomedical engineering, according to U.S. News & World Report’s 2015 Best Colleges Rankings.
“There’s no doubt in my mind, we wouldn’t have a top biomedical engineering program if we didn’t have embedded within our DNA the risk-taking and vision evident from this bold partnership between Emory and Georgia Tech,” Bellamkonda said.
Michael Davis, an Emory associate professor in the biomedical engineering department and director of the Pediatric Center for Cardiovascular Biology at Emory, said the joint department is the model for how new therapies are made – with engineers and biomedical scientists working together to solve problems. For example, a scientist may be trying to get a cell to live longer and stay where it is needed; an engineer may have a great material that cells can survive in and that gels quickly in the body. Separately, these may be interesting, but put together, you have potential cures, Davis said.
“In the next 10 years, with the right funding, the sky could be the limit,” Davis said. “As the successes mount, so will the opportunities.”
IBB was launched around the same time as the Coulter Department, with the mission of accelerating Georgia Tech’s move into bio-related research. Today, the bioscience community is home to more than 150 faculty and more than 1,000 graduate students across 10 different academic units.
Georgia Tech’s funding from the Department of Health and Human Services, nearly all of which comes to Georgia Tech through the National Institutes of Health, has risen from $3 million in 1994 to $25 million in 2014. That acceleration shows no signs of stopping.
Opening in early 2015 is the Engineered Biosciences Building (EBB). The $113 million building will provide 220,000 square feet of multidisciplinary research space, allowing for enhanced partnerships with researchers at institutions including Emory University Hospital and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.
EBB will be organized into three research themes: chemical biology, cell and developmental biology, and systems biology. This creates a pathway for development and discovery that goes from the small molecule all the way up to the organism and its system. The building was designed to “promote collaborations and form teams that cut across disciplines to take on hard problems,” Bellamkonda said. In addition to promoting world-class scientific research, EBB will generate significant economic impact through new research awards and expedite commercialization of technologies developed within.
“EBB is a model of what Georgia Tech wants to build in bioscience,” said Krishnendu Roy, a biomedical engineering professor. “That will exponentially grow the biosciences area in the next 10 years.”
Just a few months after Finn moved to Georgia Tech from The Scripps Research Institute in 2013, his decision to relocate was validated, he said, by the launching of an important new program. Roy, who had been lured away from the University of Texas at Austin, told Finn that the Immunoengineering Research Center, a $15 million research initiative with the renowned immunologists at Emory University, had received the green light. Finn knew that immunology was key to the further development of high-impact discoveries in bioscience and was very excited to see this new initiative appear “as if by magic, but really by the efforts of forward-thinking colleagues and a supportive administration.”
Roy is now the director of Georgia Tech’s Immunoengineering Center, which is helping recruit more talent to Georgia Tech, another example of how the biosciences are continuing to grow at the Institute.
“What attracted me to Tech was the close relationship with Emory and the synergy between engineering, biology, and clinic,” Roy said. “That’s very, very rare at other institutions.”
Thomas, the assistant professor who specializes in immunoengineering, was also attracted to Georgia Tech’s research environment and the attitudes of its people. She said that the diversity and flavors on campus for engineering ideas in bioscience are “tremendously innovative and trendsetting.”
Immunoengineering is the application of engineering tools and principles to quantitatively study the immune system in health and disease. Researchers in the field develop new therapies or improve existing ones by controlling a patient’s immune response. It’s a field where engineering solutions have a clear path to improve patient care, Thomas said. Immunoengineering can impact autoimmune conditions such as multiple sclerosis, arthritis, and chronic bowel disease, as well as address challenges with infectious diseases, such as respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) in children, or HIV in adults. Immunoengineering at Georgia Tech is also focused on exploring how the immune system can be harnessed to combat cancer.
“Immunoengineering is an area Georgia Tech is poised to help define,” Thomas said. “Across the country, I hear people talking about us, how we’re leaders and how we’re ahead of everyone else in a field that everyone’s interested in.”
BETTING ON BIOLOGY
When Manu Platt was a graduate student at Georgia Tech in the early 2000s, biology on campus was mostly ecology. With the rise of biomedical engineering, biology’s profile is growing, too, he said. “They’ve brought in some big hitters, and with the advent of systems biology, it becomes math with biology, which is perfect for a place like Georgia Tech: mathematicians doing biology and vice versa,” said Platt, now an assistant professor in biomedical engineering.
The Integrative Biosystems Institute (IBSI) is a step in that direction. IBSI is a place where multi-scale, multidisciplinary systems approaches are applied toward solutions of grand-challenge problems in biology, such as developmental processes leading to cancer and the interactions between humans and microbial systems in the environment. Unraveling biological systems requires immense computing power, which Georgia Tech has no shortage of.
“I think where we could lead is in quantitative biology,” Platt said. “The more math you take, the better off you’ll be because biology is really going more quantitative.” Melissa Kemp, an associate professor specializing in systems biology, agrees and sees Georgia Tech’s computing prowess as a big advantage, especially compared to bioscience programs housed at medical schools.
“You don’t see this level of computing infrastructure or computer science research elsewhere devoted to tackling some of the technical challenges that arise when you run large, complicated biological simulations,” Kemp said.
Kemp would like to see Georgia Tech’s broader biosciences community get the same level of recognition as its engineers. She thinks that’s not too far off due to the number of strong researchers being hired in the College of Sciences over the past two decades, and because of close collaboration with the College of Engineering.
“Everyone’s elevated with this team-science approach,” Kemp said.
Ravi Bellamkonda sees strengthening basic science at Georgia Tech as a big priority for the future.
“For strong engineering, I believe you need strong sciences also,” Bellamkonda said. “MIT’s biology department is fantastic, one of the best in the world. That doesn’t stop it from being a technology institute. I think we need to build excellence everywhere, and the opportunity to leverage our strong engineering brand to grow sciences on campus is compelling.”
He would love to see a building – maybe even two – on campus that is full of molecular biologists and life scientists who collaborate closely with engineers on campus. The strength of the School of Biology is in ecology, genetics, and data analysis, as recent publications in Science and Nature attest. But when it comes to basic science research in cell biology or traditional molecular biology, while these are on the rise at Georgia Tech, there is still plenty of room for growth.
Terry Snell, chair of the School of Biology, says that Georgia Tech has strengths in three broad areas of biology representing computational, ecology and evolution, and cell and molecular biology. Faculty have organized themselves into six interdisciplinary research centers focused on systems biology, bio-inspired design, aquatic chemical ecology, integrated cancer research, macromolecular complexes, and integrated genomics. “I believe that the greatest opportunities for growing biosciences at Georgia Tech lie at the intersection of the fields of biology, chemistry, physics, engineering, and computation,” Snell said. “Strategic investments in these areas could rapidly advance biosciences at Georgia Tech into the ranks of the world’s leading research universities.”
Georgia Tech boasts two world-renowned centers for the study of molecular evolution. The Ribo Evo Center, led by Loren Williams of the School of Chemistry and Biochemistry and sponsored by the NASA Astrobiology Institute, is investigating the origins of the ribosome, dubbed the operating system of life. At the Center for Chemical Evolution, led by Nick Hud, also of the School of Chemistry and Biochemistry and sponsored by a large multimillion-dollar grant from the National Science Foundation and NASA, scientists are investigating the chemical origin of life.
“The fact that there are so many people here thinking about evolution dovetails beautifully with my own plans,” Finn said. “This is where I see my own research moving in the next 10 years.”
From biomedical engineering, to physics, to mechanical engineering, researchers across campus are thinking about problems in an evolutionary context. They’re learning how to use molecular evolution to build things, or make machines or software that evolves. Finn said he sees a day where Georgia Tech is the center of the world for evolution-driven discovery.
“Using evolution to make useful stuff is something we’re going to lead the league in,” he said.
Whether in evolution or immunoengineering, the same teamwork that helped build bioscience at Georgia Tech will help Georgia Tech scientists define the bioscience fields of tomorrow. The current investments in bioscience and the excellence led by Tech’s biomedical engineering experts are prompting some of the best scientists and students to converge at Georgia Tech as it continues to grow.
“Everyone talks about collaboration, but Georgia Tech really lives up to the promise,” Thomas said. “It’s easy and natural that everyone fits together. There’s a really open environment that makes it a special place.”
Brett Israel is a research news writer in Georgia Tech’s Institute Communications. He has degrees in biochemistry and molecular biology, as well in as journalism.