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University tailors majors to become a pipeline to local economy

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Daniel Robison
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WNED
A coterie of biomedical engineering students study a few weeks before finals. They're among the first to declare the new major at the University at Buffalo.

http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/mp3/wned/local-wned-966029.mp3

As one of Western New York’s largest economic engines, SUNY’s University at Buffalo has spent heavily to invest in the health sciences and medical research the past few decades.

In fact, the demand for workers is so high, that local companies in those fields often hire from outside the region.  So UB is working to reverse that trend.

Changing the trend

The University at Buffalo has nearly 20,000 undergraduate students. Only about a hundred study biomedical engineering.

Junior Chris Martinson says he chose the major because two of his close relatives died of cancer, and he wants to use the degree to do something about the disease.

“A lot of cancer techniques that they use today have a lot of problems. I want to try to figure how we can minimize those problems and have a better way of curing cancer,” Martinson says.

Martinson’s chosen discipline uses the principles of engineering to solve health-related issues.

There are plenty of chances to do that in Buffalo these days. With the expansion of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, a sector of the local economy is now thirsty for qualified workers. So a year ago, UB added biomedical engineering to its majors.

Professor Albert Titus oversaw the program’s birth and now, how it’s being sold to students – and parents.

“The sales pitch is this is going to benefit the local economy [by] providing a number of students with the right skills,” he says. “They’re going to be able to then be employed locally instead of going somewhere else.”

UB does not collect comprehensive data for how many students it’s actually pumping into the local economy. Still, the school has created eight new majors since 1995, in sectors of the economy that are showing growth, like bioinformatics and computational biology.

Signing off on those new majors is Scott Weber, dean for undergraduate education.

“We will see growing trends. We will be responsive to those when we think those trends have sufficient critical mass and we can deliver quality programs. We may not deliver every program. There are certain schools [than can do those better],” Weber says. “[We tell students], ‘Maybe you should go to another school.’ Maybe that’s a bad thing to say. I don’t think so.”

Adding a new major requires years of planning, including filing stacks of paperwork with the bureaucratically-inclined SUNY system. It also required, in the case of biomedical engineering, a $3 million investment from the Oshei Foundation.

Suffice it to say, it’s an involved process.

“As it should be,” says Debra Humphreys, with the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Humphreys says schools want to be sure they’re not just jumping on a bandwagon. After a school invests in a new program, complete with new tenure-track faculty and facilities, university officials don’t want to find it irrelevant a decade later thanks to shifting economic winds, Humphreys says

“Starting up a whole program to address one specific industry is a bit of a risk. That’s why it doesn’t happen as quickly as you might like. But in the long run that may be a smart managerial choice,” Humphreys says.

Growing pains

Back at UB, Lindsay Rothberg is knee deep in her classes, just a few weeks before finals. She too has taken the leap to become one of UB’s first biomedical engineering students. Yet she and her peers have had some trouble finding internships this summer, because the new program has yet to build relationships with local organizations.

“We can tell that our teachers are doing the best they can,” she says. “But they’re also trying to figure out the best way to teach us the material. They don’t really have a reference. We do feel like guinea pigs, in a sense.”

UB officials admit there are some growing pains associated with building a new program from scratch. But in order to have the major, and create a pipeline to the local economy, some students have to go first. 

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