A magazine for friends of the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University.

Beam Them In


New institute convenes biomedical engineers and clinicians to create solutions to improve human health.

Driven by the immense societal need for more effective and equitable health care, the new Institute for Biology, Engineering, and Medicine at Brown University is serving as an incubator for collaborative research and innovation that can be translated into health and medical solutions.

In part, I-BEAM’s establishment was inspired by COVID-19, its leaders say, and the ways in which the pandemic illuminated both individual and population-level vulnerabilities to illness that could be best addressed through the combination of experimentation, computation, and clinical research.

“It’s really exciting to have clinicians who know what the unmet medical challenges are working with biomedical scientists and biomedical engineers as part of a team to tackle important medical challenges,” says Mukesh K. Jain, MD, senior vice president for health affairs, dean of medicine and biological sciences, and a member of the institute’s executive committee. “They’re all working together on shared challenges in
health care.”

I-BEAM will bring together researchers from BioMed, engineering, chemistry, applied mathematics, computer science, and brain science, among other academic units. Its mission extends to questions focused on health equity and social impact that will also engage colleagues from the School of Public Health and Brown’s humanities and social sciences departments.

To increase the long-term impact of research emerging from the institute, its leaders are collaborating with colleagues from Columbia, Johns Hopkins, and Yale—backed by a $3.3 million NSF grant—to design and implement strategies to increase the number of faculty from groups historically underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, with a specific focus on biomedical engineering.

I-BEAM also will help Brown students develop skills through classes that bridge biology and engineering as well as applied or translational research experiences. Eventually, leaders expect to offer certificate programs for graduate students to build skills and knowledge that span the diverse disciplines needed to make progress on critical challenges at the nexus of biology, engineering, and medicine.

Jain says the development of RNA therapeutics is one example of research at Brown that will benefit from the new I-BEAM structure. While such drugs are fast and cost effective to develop, they also present major challenges, including the fact that RNA is unstable and therefore difficult to deliver exactly where it needs to go to help the patient.

“Biomedical engineers are really terrific partners with biomedical scientists in not only making discoveries, but also the practical aspects of developing tools to deliver medications to the right place at the right time,” Jain says.

I-BEAM has its roots in Brown’s biomedical engineering program, which is one of the oldest in the country. Vicki Colvin, PhD, professor of chemistry and of engineering and the founding director of I-BEAM, says that some of the first researchers working on artificial organs in the 1960s and ’70s were faculty at Brown.

“Brown was doing biomedical engineering before it was cool,” she says. “In fact, the nation’s highest award in biomedical engineering is named after Pierre Galletti, who was the inaugural leader of the Division of Biology and Medicine at Brown and instrumental in the founding of our medical school.”


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