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Whitaker Foundation grants $15 million to bioengineering, UC Berkeley's newest department
03 May 2000

By Kathleen Scalise , Media Relations

Berkeley -- The Virginia-based Whitaker Foundation has awarded $15 million to the two-year-old Department of Bioengineering at the University of California, Berkeley, boosting work on biomedical advances to diagnose and treat disease and prolong healthy life.

The gift to UC Berkeley's College of Engineering will help support increased student enrollment, new faculty positions, expanded courses and research programs, and a new building.

"We're committed to educating a whole new kind of engineer at Berkeley - a bioengineer who is grounded in biology, engineering, and in the many fields that will be critical to medical advances that are just beyond our grasp today," said Paul Gray, dean of the UC Berkeley College of Engineering. "The Whitaker Foundation has been a catalyst in furthering biomedical engineering across the country. Its gift to Berkeley has helped ignite a very special teaching and research effort here."

Established in 1998, the Department of Bioengineering is the newest department at UC Berkeley and the first created in the College of Engineering in 40 years. It is a cornerstone of the campus's Health Sciences Initiative, launched last fall as a broad interdisciplinary approach to education and research in the health sciences. The department is planned to become a unique, two-campus entity, administered jointly by UC Berkeley and UC San Francisco.

The Whitaker Foundation has awarded more than $525 million to biomedical engineering programs at colleges and universities. The foundation supports about 400 faculty research projects, 150 graduate fellows, and 100 education and internship programs in the United States and Canada.

"We are proud to award one of our largest grants ever to UC Berkeley, a leading school of engineering collaborating with an excellent school of medicine at UCSF," said Peter G. Katona, Whitaker Foundation president of biomedical engineering programs. "Under the strong leadership of department chair Thomas Budinger, this promises to have a major impact on biomedical engineering education."

Engineers, biologists, computer scientists, physicians, and others make up the department's faculty and collaborators. Work focuses in particular on four promising research areas:

  • Biomedical imaging: UC Berkeley engineers and scientists pioneered nuclear magnetic resonance imaging. Today, they are improving how well we can "see" within the body and understand its chemical make-up to diagnose and treat diseases from cancer to heart ailments and Alzheimer's disease to behavioral disorders.
  • Bio-MEMS and robotics: Micro-electromechanical systems, or MEMS, are minute devices that open up entirely new possibilities for health care. Examples of this area of nanotechnology at UC Berkeley include compact drug delivery systems for finely measured and timed dosages, diagnostic laboratories "on a chip" and robotic tools for minimally invasive surgery.
  • Tissue engineering and remodeling: Understanding the mechanics of the body - from how a knee wears out to how analyzing blood flow can help predict strokes - is critical to prolonging life and health. Armed with this understanding, UC Berkeley bioengineers are making progress on such varied fronts as ergonomic design and viable artificial or regenerated tissue and bone.
  • Bioinformatics and genomics: Mountains of genetic data being generated through the mapping of the human genome create an opportunity to study how proteins and the genetic code control cell behavior. In addition, the data generates an urgent need for the most advanced database management, computer analysis and computer modeling available. The bioengineering department is one of a handful developing future engineers to work at the boundaries between biology and computation.

"The department is bringing more faculty and students into bioengineering at UC Berkeley. For example, four times more graduate students have accepted admission to the UC Berkeley/UCSF program this year over last," said Thomas F. Budinger, chair of the department and a faculty member at both UC Berkeley and UCSF. "This means more progress in the critical areas of health science and engineering."

Bioengineering at UC Berkeley has been one of the most competitive majors for admission in recent years, a field in great demand by exceptionally qualified students. Over the next five years, enrollment in the department will increase to 300 undergraduates and 100 graduate students, a rise of 63 percent from the time of the department's inception. Six new faculty members also will be hired.

The Whitaker Foundation funds are also a significant boon to campus planning for a new building to house bioengineering and related health sciences programs on the northeast side of the UC Berkeley campus. The facility is one of two new buildings planned to expand the health sciences at UC Berkeley. The two projects are estimated to cost $300 million, mostly funded by private support.

The Whitaker Foundation was established upon the death of U. A. Whitaker, founder and chief executive officer of AMP Incorporated, which became the world's largest manufacturer of electrical connectors and connecting devices. An inventor, engineer, and philanthropist, Whitaker and his wife Helen supported collaborative medical research involving engineers, scientists and physicians.

Within the next six years, the foundation plans to spend down all its assets, investing primarily in biomedical engineering education and research programs. By then, foundation spokespersons said, biomedical engineering should be a vibrant academic discipline with its own self-sustaining momentum.

"Our ultimate legacy will depend upon the contributions of biomedical engineering to improvements in health care," said G. Burtt Holmes, chairman of the Whitaker Foundation Governing Committee. "In the final analysis, the foundation will have invested wisely if the ability of clinicians to diagnose and treat trauma and disease is substantially enhanced."



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