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UND biomedical engineering program gains ground with new programs

Ph.D. candidate Ali Haider, left, and UND associate professor Reza Fazel-Rezai, attach a cap with fittings for dry electrodes to recent UND graduate Joseph Aymond. The cap is part of an array designed to read brainwaves and used in research conducted by biomedical engineers. Haider and Fazel-Rezai, who is director of the university’s biomedical engineering programs, say the system allows subjects to spell sentences on a computer using only their thoughts and eyesight. (Joshua Komer / Grand Forks Herald)1 / 3
Md. Ali Haider, right plugs in the hat as Joseph Aymond waits in front of the computer. The cap's electrodes can pick up brainwaves through an electric current in his mind to spell out sentences. (Joshua Komer / Grand Forks Herald)2 / 3
Professor Reza Fazel-Rezai shows an electrode that is used to help be more exact when measuring the severity of Parkinson's disease. The electrodes provide exact data that can be used for many applications. (Joshua Komer / Grand Forks Herald)3 / 3

Recent UND graduate Joseph Aymond wore a skullcap to be fitted with dry electrodes as he prepared to have his thoughts read and displayed for all to see on the two computer monitors before him.

Or, rather, he modeled the cap in a demonstration of what one might look like during testing in the university's biomedical engineering lab. The cap wasn't actually hooked up the machine, so Aymond's "thoughts" appeared as a yellow line squiggling across the glass of one monitor as the other presented groups of letters arranged in hexagonal patterns.

In a normal course of testing, a person would be able to select individual letters using only their thoughts and sight. UND associate professor Reza Fazel-Rezai, who serves as director of the university's biomedical engineering programs, says research subjects have been using the program to type out sentences. It's hardly an instant message, and Fazel-Rezai said it takes some time to craft a full phrase. But the goal of the study is to develop a means of communication for people who are "locked in" and, though fully aware, are physically paralyzed and unable to speak.

The research modeled by Aymond is just one application for the work being done in the university's biomedical engineering space, which Fazel-Rezai describes as just one part of a steadily advancing body of work that's knocking down barriers between engineering disciplines while changing the way we talk about physiological challenges.

"It's where engineering meets medicine and human health," Fazel-Rezai said of the field. "It's technology and new equipment all the way to algorithms, mobile health applications and telemedicine—the spectrum is very broad."

Fazel-Rezai and other UND engineering leaders see the field as a major growth area and have been taking steps to solidify its presence on campus. They established a minor-level degree program for undergraduates about two years ago and scored a major victory last year when they secured all the necessary clearances to launch master's and Ph.D. programs devoted specifically to the field. Besides the interdisciplinary part of the field, the advanced-level courses also have the benefit of reaching across institutions. Participating students will be able to work on degrees through a partnership forged between the UND College of Engineering and Mines, the UND School of Medicine and Health Sciences and the North Dakota State University College of Engineering.

Engineering students at UND were previously able to home in on biomedical studies as a focus within the electrical engineering program, Fazel-Rezai said, but the school's new programming options should expand its ability to train the next wave of bioengineers.

College Dean Hesham El-Rewini said professionals in the discipline are in high demand.

"As far as you go look for jobs in the future, you'll find biomed engineering is one of those areas that's always on the list, and high on the list," El-Rewini said, adding that it's a "no-brainer" for UND engineering to expand its capacity to fill that niche.

Analyzing human data

Drawing together so many moving parts has been a long-term effort. An early push for the combined graduate program began more than a decade ago, Fazel-Rezai said, but failed to get the necessary approvals to bring the concept into reality.

"It's a very big program, so we've had to get the agreements for many different places," he said.

In 2010, Fazel-Rezai took the lead of a renewed effort to launch the three-part program. His efforts helped produce the undergraduate minor program, but approvals for the postgraduate field of study didn't come together until 2016.

This upcoming academic year will be the first major run for biomedical-specific, high-level engineering coursework. Fazel-Razai said the program will begin on a small scale, likely with a handful of enrolled students. From there, he hopes to see it grow to meet a growing niche in the medical world.

El-Rewini says the collaboration with the other colleges helps students to better fuse the raw medical and engineering components of the field. The program's research arm will be overseen by faculty from both universities involved in a variety of projects.

Kouhyar Tavakolian, one of the lead engineering faculty members involved in the UND side of the program, said the combined approach underscores the opportunity to apply research to any number of areas. His own work recently included the UND Department of Aviation as he developed a headset to track various biological signals in pilots as they fly. By monitoring pilot fatigue through data such as heart rate and brain activity, Tavakolian says the equipment is able to vibrate and help focus flyers as they get weary in the cockpit.

Tavakolian said the aviation research demonstrates a common thread in the diverse work being done under the biomedical engineering umbrella.

"We work on the analysis of signals and images—that's what our technical expertise is, we're all engineers," Tavakolian said. "So that's why we collaborate outside. We need the clinicians and the people who are better at understanding the human body."

Andrew Haffner

Andrew Haffner covers higher education and general assignment stories for the Grand Forks Herald. He attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he studied journalism, political science and international studies. He previously worked at the Dickinson Press.

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