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Forward Thinking: Guigen Zhang's Vision for Biomedical Engineering at UK Informs and Inspires

by Kelly Hahn

When Guigen Zhang elucidates the future of the F. Joseph Halcomb III, M.D. Department of Biomedical Engineering, he begins with the past.

“The biomedical engineering program [BME] at UK has a long history of personal mentoring and care that professors have imparted to the students and trainees,” says Zhang, department chair and F. Joseph Halcomb III, M.D. Endowed Chair in Biomedical Engineering. “The support and guidance Dr. Halcomb received from professors helped him combine his interests in engineering and medicine, which later resulted in his generous gift to the BME department. That makes for a powerful culture.”

Until last August, Zhang served as professor and associate chair of the Department of Bioengineering at Clemson University. When considering a move to Lexington, Zhang says he noted not only the culture but also the collaborative opportunities uniquely available at the University of Kentucky.

“UK has the whole package—Colleges of Engineering, Medicine, Dentistry, Pharmacy, Health Sciences, Public Health, Nursing, Design, Fine Arts, Communication, Business, Arts and Sciences, Law, Education, Social Work, Diplomacy and International Commerce, and Agriculture on a single campus. Why does this matter? It matters because it provides a transdisciplinary environment that is crucial if we are going to advance science and technology and promote economic growth in a timely and socially relevant way.”

While biomedical engineering research at UK stretches back to the 1950s, it wasn’t until 2013 that biomedical engineering formally became one of the College of Engineering's eight departments. Although degrees are only available at the graduate level, the department began offering a minor to undergraduate students a couple of years ago to meet the rising interest in biomedical engineering. Zhang believes offering an undergraduate degree in BME at UK would meet growing student interest and build an intellectual hub for the region to engineer health caredriven economic developments—and that UK has the wholepackage advantage to create such a program from the ground up.

“UK’s entire academic structure is valuable and crucial for us to develop BME programs powered by design thinking to equip students with critical skills necessary to thrive in the real world. These skills include the ability to communicate empathetically with people from all walks of life; the ability to prototype, build, test and refine your engineering designs to meet the users’ needs; and the ability to frame right problems and solve them, rather than applying your engineering skills to solve problems that may have been wrongly framed by others.”

Zhang’s insistence upon expanding one’s horizon rather than narrowing into increasing specialization exemplifies what he calls “integrative engineering.” Last year, he published “Introduction to Integrative Engineering” with CRC Press Taylor & Francis Group. In the book, he explains how the metaphor of “connecting the dots” represents the kind of integrative thinking students need to succeed.

“Before connecting the dots, you will need to collect them [which involves] the acquisition of information and known theories and principles. Connecting the dots is the integrative process in which the acquired facts and rules are processed and integrated into interconnected knowledge, insight and wisdom. Do not be satisfied by just collecting the dots; nothing much will happen if you do not connect them.”

It is this new way of thinking that Zhang hopes to communicate to current and future biomedical engineering students—a comprehensive vision that not only informs but also inspires.

“It is said, ‘Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire,’” says Zhang. “I am certain we will continue to light an intellectual fire in students and trainees as we mentor them to recognize and reach their full potential.”