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The Weldon School: Top choice for electroceutical studies

For graduate students seeking a career in implantable devices, Purdue’s Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering should be on the short list. Large, comprehensive, and well-funded, the electroceutical research program is a prime training ground for students in engineering, biomedical and computer science fields.

In electroceuticals, graduate researchers work with nationally recognized faculty developing tools for controlling health problems such as epilepsy, the body’s inflammatory reflex, depression and post-traumatic stress, glaucoma, urinary incontinence and gastroparesis.

A dedicated center

Research and development takes place in Purdue’s Center for Implantable Devices. Center director Pedro Irazoqui leads the University’s electroceutical team of faculty and graduate student researchers who consistently win challenge grants from the likes of the DARPA Biosystems Technology Office, GlaxoSmithKline and the National Institutes of Health.

In his fifth year in the program, PhD student Dan Pederson builds devices to treat epilepsy. When looking for a program, he was pleased to note that Purdue had a center devoted to implantable device development. With undergraduate degrees in computer and biological engineering, as well as industry experience, he was eager to start designing and building devices.

Student Kelsey Bayer, who is finishing her master’s in biomedical engineering this year, felt similarly. “I like electrical engineering, and I like building devices,” she says. “So I was looking for hands-on experience.”

Photo (top right): Fifth-year grad student Dan Pederson studies epilepsy. He develops implantable devices for rodents that both record various biopotential signals and stimulate the nervous system. 

Making tools

“Many schools had only a handful of professors making implantable devices,” Pederson says. Others were more geared to biology and “wet” research and bought components off the shelf. “But I wanted to get the experience of actually creating my own devices.”

As Irazoqui sees it, innovative tools are what enable advances in science. “My colleagues in the sciences may disagree,” he says. “There are lots of smart people who do great science with tools. But the rate-limiting factor on scientific discovery is the presence of tools. And engineers make tools.”

Photo (middle right): The Bionode implantable device for rodents contains four independent differential acquisition channels and one stimulation channel. The Bionode transmits and receives data wirelessly and is also wirelessly powered. 

Faculty mentors

Faculty on the 19-member electroceutical team have backgrounds in biomedical engineering and electrical and computer engineering. Many members, like Irazoqui, have dual Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering—School of Electrical and Computer Engineering appointments. Electroceutical faculty also have specialties in psychology, biology, agricultural and biological engineering, industrial engineering, and speech, language and hearing sciences.

When researching programs, Pederson says his insights came from people in the biomedical industry. “I asked, ‘Who do you know who does good work?’ I leveraged all my contacts.” When he discovered that Purdue had an implantable devices center — and an industry-respected professor who does work on epilepsy, his own research passion, he was impressed. “That was important to me,” Pederson says.

Established relationships

“Our network of institutional relationships is another thing that makes Purdue the best place to train in electroceuticals,” Irazoqui says. The cross-disciplinary team works closely with the Purdue Institute for Integrative Neuroscience, Purdue's Regenstrief Center for Healthcare Engineering, the National Institute for Drug Abuse, the Indiana University School of Medicine, and the internationally known Jackson Laboratory.

With established relationships, electroceutical researchers at the Center for Implantable Devices routinely collaborate with researchers in the medical sciences — people who can help develop, and eventually use, implantable devices in their treatments.

For graduates from the Weldon School, relationships translate to satisfying careers. Bayer says, “Networking in this program is amazing. Everyone I’ve met here is successful and smart.” Her friends who have graduated are all doing well in the medical device industry, and she has plenty of leads when she starts applying for jobs. “I definitely plan to stay in electroceuticals,” she says.

“Purdue has a long history of making significant contributions in the availability of medical devices and medical device technologies,” Irazoqui says. It began in the 1970s with Les Geddes, pioneer in the field of implantable cardio-defibrillators. Geddes, who acquired many honors throughout his long career, made key contributions to electrode design and tissue restoration that helped make implantable devices practical.

Geddes and his lab laid the foundation for the program that eventually became Purdue’s Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering in 2007. 

“Students here participate in the development of tools that lead to cures,” Irazoqui says. After all, it was the microscope and the telescope that led to discoveries in biology and astrophysics. “Today, responsive electroceutical devices enable us to make sense of things in real time and perhaps make life-changing discoveries in medical science.”

Photo (bottom right): The Bionode is configured to measure two channels of electrocardiogram (ECG), one channel of electrocorticogram (ECoG), and one channel of respiration via a thermocouple.