When Medical Met Engineering
A weekend research retreat ponders potential collaborations between the Keck School and USC Viterbi.
Andrea Hodge, USC Viterbi assistant professor of aerospace and mechanical engineering, introduced herself to David Woodley, the Keck School’s chairman of dermatology, expressing interest in lending her expertise in the mechanical behavior of materials to his need for measuring skin plasticity in the wound healing process.
These were only two of the new connections made as more than 100 faculty from USC’s medical and engineering schools spent a weekend together Oct. 17-19, exploring opportunities for enhanced collaboration.
Already faculty from the two schools have worked together on development of an artificial retina and neuromuscular stimulation to minimize swallowing difficulties in cancer patients – among many other projects. However, the schools’ two deans see even greater potential.
“Collaboration between Keck and Viterbi can lead to increased research funding for USC – definitely a priority – as well as enhanced learning experiences for all kinds of students,” said Dean Carmen A. Puliafito of the Keck School.
According to USC Viterbi Dean Yannis C. Yortsos, “Engineers develop tools to help answer questions. Our engineering faculty are eager to learn more about the questions the medical school faculty want to answer, so we can see where we might come together.”
Program organizers Elizabeth Fini, vice dean for research advancement at Keck, and Maja Matarić, senior associate dean for research at USC Viterbi, agreed that enhanced synergy is the ultimate goal – synergy to leverage and nurture existing partnerships, collaborative grants and research activities.
Among the areas of potential collaboration explored during the retreat were:
• brain, vision, hearing, speech and neuro-rehabilitation
• biomedical imaging (from molecular to whole body)
• diagnostics and therapeutics (including nanomedicine and ultrasound)
• health informatics and bioinformatics
• regenerative medicine, cancer and stem cells
• systems biology, multi-scale modeling in biomedicine, drug design/delivery
• developmental and metabolic disorders and environmental health
• surgical/clinical applications of robotics, virtual reality, advanced microelectronics, low-cost/portable/wearable technology.
Beyond the “grass roots” connections for collaborative projects, faculty heard a discussion of different models for creating a new collaborative program between the two schools.
The discussion was led by Martha Gray, visiting associate dean for health science and technology, who recently arrived from the Massaschusetts Institute of Technology. She is charged with advising USC faculty on the creation of a program similar to the Harvard University-MIT model called HST for Health Science and Technology. The proposed new program is referred to as “HST at USC.”
“The premise is that many important health and medical problems are too big and too complex to be addressed by a single discipline,” Gray explained. “Engineers and physicians look at problems differently, and they need to work together in universities, teaching hospitals and research centers.”
Gray recommended an organizational model in which some faculty members serve as good stewards of their separate disciplines, while other faculty embrace a new approach to steward a network of disciplines and translation of the work.
“You can’t do both of these things within a single academic unit,” she said, “and faculty and senior leadership have to drive the cultural change that is required for a new model.”
Among the issues to be overcome, Gray said, are infrastructure needs and faculty appointments. “The new entity could create opportunities to recruit outstanding faculty and students who otherwise would not come,” she said.
Gray pointed out that 95 percent of the HST alumni work in the biomedical arena, many in leadership positions. More than 400 students are currently are enrolled in the program.
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