UC Bioengineering

Over the last couple of days I have been to UC Berkeley, UCLA and USC, three University of California campus, and I think that the diversity within one state encapsulates the heterogeneous bioengineering landscape I have observed on my US tour.

At UC Berkeley they look more broadly at bioengineering, with particular expertise in synthetic biology, systems biology. The Department was founded in 1998 and is the youngest Department in engineering. UC Berkeley doesn’t have a medical school so they utilise the UC San Francisco medical school for clinical/engineering collaborations, biomedical engineering research at PhD level and through the translational medicine masters program.

At UCLA their focus is more molecular and mechanistic based, but research spans all scales. The Departments developed in more of a grass roots approach compared to other institutions I have visited with faculty brought in to build breadth of expertise, for example Professor Daniel Kamei who I met with has a chemical engineering background. The Department was formed in 2002, with the undergraduate major beginning in 2004.

Biomedical Engineering at the University of Southern California began in 1963 initially as a PhD option (in Systems Physiology) within the Electrical Engineering Department. The undergraduate major in biomedical engineering was initiated in 1974 and the Department was established in 1976 making it one of the first Departments of Bioengineering.

What was evident across these three institutions was that the research themes and the Departments definition of bioengineering change over time, depending on the faculty involved and their focus.

UC Berkeley had some useful concentric circle diagrams to illustrate the interplay between the research themes, and the academics working between or within research themes.

A benefit of the location of these institutions in California is the array of bioengineering industry that they have on their door step, this is not a coincidence, with faculty at all three institutions involved in start-ups and Silicon Valley close by. Industry is a key market for all of these universities, with students typically going into industry, graduate studies (such as medicine) or research.

From building links with industry to links with the community. University of California have taken an interesting approach to the latter through the creation of the Onward California website, which highlights the real-life applications of research by academics at University of California insitutions.

What was also great to hear at UCLA was that Professor Daniel Kamei, who grew up in Los Angeles continues to go back to his elementary and high schools to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers. This close association with the community is really important as it makes the person a much more accessible role model. This is a form of outreach I would particularly encourage undergraduate and graduate students to do.


While I was at USC I had the opportunity to explore the Medical Device Development Facility. A workshop for medical device invention and innovation created by Professor Jerry Loeb in 1999. Professor Loeb had a different take on bioengineering to many others that I spoke to, having come from a medical background. To him engineering is applied physiology with the aim of creating treatments for disease. He also highlighted the importance of defining the distinction between engineering and science, something I equally feel strongly about. He expanded to discuss that to him the difference between biomedical engineering and biological engineering is that the former uses science for engineering and the latter uses engineering for science.

This reminded me of a quote I often use in presentations to illustrate the difference between engineering and science.

“Engineering is the use of technical and scientific knowledge for the benefit of humanity. Scientists study the world as it is; engineers create the world that has never been.” – Theodore von Kármán

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