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BME: Better engineering through philanthropy

In Cornell's earliest years, the engineering program started out with one professor, two courses, hardly any lab equipment and no building. But in 1870, thanks to a gift from Hiram Sibley – a university trustee and one of Ezra Cornell's telegraph-business partners – the program found a home in the new Sibley Hall and later evolved into the Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, now one of a dozen engineering fields at Cornell.

Robert Langer

Inventor and MIT professor Robert Langer '70 speaks at Cornell.. See larger image

Once again, a trustee's vision and generosity are making Cornell engineering history: Cornell University Board of Trustees Chair Emeritus Peter Meinig '61, Nancy Meinig '62 and their daughters recently made a $50 million gift commitment to expand the biomedical engineering (BME) department into the Nancy E. and Peter C. Meinig School of Biomedical Engineering.

"I've been working very closely with the dean, bouncing ideas off of him, looking at his strategic plan, and talking with other key engineering alumni," said Peter Meinig, a mechanical engineering alumnus. "It has become very clear to me that if we are to be regarded among the very top-ranked engineering colleges in the country we must have a robust program in biomedical engineering."

The Meinig School is a watershed moment in the growth of BME at Cornell. BME started as a department with three faculty members in 2004 and has expanded to 16 faculty today. Over this period, its programs have included an undergraduate minor available to students in the Colleges of Engineering, Arts and Sciences, and Agriculture and Life Sciences, as well as a professional master's degree and research-oriented master's and doctoral degrees. And while BME has risen swiftly in the national rankings, the Meinig family's gift – along with the launch this fall of the undergraduate major – positions the Meinig School for even greater prominence on the national and global stage.

"The first decade was creating and developing the department, and it ranked in the top 20. In the second decade, we want to move into the top 10," said Marjolein van der Meulen, the James M. and Marsha McCormick Director of Biomedical Engineering and the Swanson Professor of Biomedical Engineering.

The Meinig family's gift will allow the school to further develop the BME curriculum, attract outstanding undergraduate and graduate students, recruit pioneering faculty and support their teaching and research, including collaborations with Weill Cornell Medicine, where several BME professors have joint appointments.

Lance Collins, the Joseph Silbert Dean of Engineering, called the school the "centerpiece" of a broader multidisciplinary field of bioengineering at Cornell and underscored BME's unifying role: "It has many connections, from basic sciences like chemistry and physics to veterinary medicine, and it has been, by far, the most important bridge between the medical college in New York City and the Ithaca campus."

Connections with other fields at Cornell and with other medical and research institutions in New York City and elsewhere also will be strengthened by the school, according to van der Meulen. Apart from Weill Cornell, she cited her own research projects with the Hospital for Special Surgery and other connections to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center as examples. She also discussed the promise of BME – from drug delivery to imaging and diagnostics – in addressing deadly diseases like cancer as well as debilitating illnesses like arthritis, and praised the unique ability of engineers to discover life-changing breakthroughs.

One of the forerunners of this new generation of engineers is Cornell trustee Robert Langer '70, a chemical engineering graduate-turned BME pioneer with more than 1,000 patents and hundreds of awards. Langer recalled his undergraduate years when the "very demanding but thorough and rigorous" engineering program had just shifted from a five- to a four-year program, and he was thrilled to hear the news about the establishment of the Meinig School and the launch of the major.

"I think it's terrific," he said, mentioning that he might have taken the major himself. The David H. Koch Institute Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Langer also recalled how his early postdoctoral work with a cancer researcher at the Children's Hospital in Boston and at Harvard Medical School led him to develop microscopic polymer spheres for time-release delivery of drugs that inhibit the growth of blood vessels in tumors now used by more than a million people each year.

Collins said the Meinig School will develop future generations of BME trailblazers like Langer. Recalling Cornell's and the College of Engineering's origins in the Morrill Land-Grant Act, he added: "With our mission of improving the lives of all New Yorkers and people around the globe, the creation of the Meinig School is an incredibly important step toward achieving that vision. The college is forever indebted to Pete, Nancy and their family for giving us the resources to grow BME's scope and influence."

– Jose Beduya

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