The number of students who put biomedical engineering as their first preference at UNSW this year jumped by almost 40%, an “exciting and previously unheard of spike in numbers”, according to Professor John Whitelock, Head of the Graduate School of Biomedical Engineering.

In addition to the overall increase, 30% more women applied for the program in 2014 compared to last year.

UNSW is home to the Graduate School of Biomedical Engineering, and the key advantage of the program is that it offers undergraduates a concurrent five-year Bachelors and Masters degree, where biomedical engineering is a strong focus that is complemented by one of nine accredited engineering degrees, such as electrical, mechanical or chemical engineering.  

Professor Whitelock believes the spike in applications is driven by a growing public interest in the way new engineering technologies interface and help support the human body to improve quality of life.

In this area, UNSW is leading the field, with projects such as implantable bionics including the bionic eye, the development of ambulatory prosthetic devices for the Australian Paralympic team and advancements in biomaterials and regenerative medicine.

“Students often think engineers just build bridges and scientists just look down microscopes. But in biomedical engineering we do both, and focus on outcomes to improve human health,” says Professor Whitelock.

The course also attracts budding entrepreneurs, due to the school’s strong links with industry. The most recent company to be launched from UNSW and the School is bioz, co-founded by Professor Melissa Knothe Tate, the Paul M Trainor Chair of Biomedical Engineering.

Set up with initial funding from the Ignition Labs program of business incubator ATPi and matching funds from the Innovate NSW MVP program of NSW Trade and Investment, bioz’s first product will be a ‘lymphoedema compression sleeve’. Developed by Professor Knothe Tate, the revolutionary sleeve uses a patent-pending four dimensional-weaving technology and harnesses the patient’s movement to maintain compression in limbs afflicted by a buildup of tissue fluid at the surgical site, a condition that 20% of cancer survivors will face after surgery.

Part of Professor Knothe Tate’s role at UNSW is to develop relationships between the school and the biomedical industry, which will open up a raft of new opportunities for students, as well as Australian based manufacturing capabilities.

“The field of biomedical engineering is in a real 'sweet spot' right now,” says Professor Knothe Tate. 

“It's no longer so new that companies don't know what to make of it and it is at the crossroads of innovation made possible by the collaboration of disparate fields like ecology and biology and development of next generation devices.”

Professor Knothe Tate is also focusing on outreach for female and under-represented students, alongside Dr Megan Lord, a senior lecturer in the Graduate School.

“Forty percent of biomedical engineering students are women already, and the number is growing,” says Dr Lord, who attributes this to effective, engaged and strong female role models.

Dr Lord works on school outreach programs and the popular annual UNSW Women in Engineering Camp, designed to encourage more young women to pursue studies in engineering, science and maths.

The Faculty of Engineering has set an overall target of 25% female enrolment by 2020, with first semester enrolments for this year at around 22%, well above the national average. The Faculty recently appointed Dr Alex Bannigan to implement its Women in Engineering initiative.

By Fiona MacDonald

Media contact: Ry Crozier, UNSW Media Office, 02 9385 1933

Bionic eye implant restores sight to the blind - UNSW biomedical engineering research in action