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Foundation gives $3M for bioengineering

A $3 million grant from the Whitaker Foundation to the Division of Bioengineering and Environmental Health (BEH) will help launch a new bioengineering PhD program and support the role of BEH as the departmental home for MIT students and faculty at the interface of engineering and biology.

The grant was announced by Professor Thomas L. Magnanti, dean of the School of Engineering.

"In making this award to BEH, the Whitaker Foundation has recognized the potentially transformative discipline of bioengineering, matching our own commitment to the future in this field," said Dean Magnanti.

"Since the School of Engineering expects that the most powerful technologies for improving human health in the 21st century will emerge from bioengineering, we created BEH to build intimate ties between engineering and biology, with an aim to advancing biomedical engineering and environmental health. By bringing biology into engineering as one of the foundational sciences, along with mathematics, physics and chemistry, bioengineering will be in a much better position to assume a central role in the coming era of molecular medicine."

A private, nonprofit foundation dedicated to improving human health through the support of biomedical engineering, the Whitaker Foundation began support of BEH with an initial grant of $1 million awarded in 1998 for enhancing the division's undergraduate minor in biomedical engineering and planning an envisioned new five-year SB/MEng biomedical engineering program in BEH.

The current grant will provide funds for research and teaching laboratories for all BEH faculty, startup support for new faculty, and curriculum development and graduate student fellowships for the bioengineering PhD program. Bioengineering research will be applied to both medical and environmental effects on physiology, as well as to industrial biotechnologies bearing on diagnostics and therapeutics.

Professors Douglas Lauffenburger and Steven Tannenbaum, BEH co-directors, said, "Our sincere hope and intention is that BEH will help accelerate recognition of MIT as being an unsurpassed institution for bioengineering teaching and research, and that the bioengineering PhD program will soon be viewed as one which attracts the very best students interested in this new discipline, nationwide and worldwide, and prepares them for leadership careers in academe and industry."

The new bioengineering PhD program will bring in graduate students to study in an innovative curriculum centered on a sharply focused technical core. It will teach students how fundamental biological processes can be analyzed in terms of central engineering principles of mechanics, transport and kinetics, and how they can be manipulated by combining engineering design approaches with molecular- and cell-based methodologies.

Researchers will give special attention to advances in materials, instrumentation and computation relevant to biology. Thesis research will emphasize synthesis of this understanding for technological applications in human health, spanning the range from genomics to molecular diagnostics and therapeutics to tissue-engineered devices.

Established in 1975 upon the death of Uncas A. Whitaker (SB 1923), founder and former CEO of AMP Inc., the Whitaker Foundation is a private, nonprofit foundation dedicated to improving human health through the support of biomedical engineering.

Mr. Whitaker and his family provided major support for construction of both MIT's Whitaker Building (Building 56) and the Whitaker College of Health Sciences and Technology (Building E25). He also contributed to the endowment for the Health Sciences and Technology Program jointly administered by Harvard and MIT, and created the Health Sciences Fund which, for nearly two decades, supported collaborative, interdisciplinary research by young investigators and doctoral students at MIT, Harvard Medical School, Boston University School of Medicine and Tufts University School of Medicine.

A version of this article appeared in the April 14, 1999 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 43, Number 26).

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