Tapping the ‘wild collaboration’ within biomedical engineers

In most academic departments, cross-disciplinary collaboration is welcomed, but not required — considered more the professional icing than the cake.

Not so for biomedical engineering, a field where researchers define themselves by their direct connections to translational medicine and healthcare.

This distinction helped the UW–Madison Department of Biomedical Engineering (BME) benefit from a major hiring coup in 2016. By partnering with the Morgridge Institute for Research, BME landed internationally recognized optical imaging pioneers Melissa Skala and Jan Huisken to their new faculty ranks.

Beth Meyerand

For scientists who thrive on collaboration, the Morgridge joint hire upped the ante, says Beth Meyerand, a professor of biomedical engineering who served as department chair during the hires. “We would never have gotten Jan and Melissa here without the help of Morgridge,” she says.

“Morgridge has a goal of hiring people who are wildly collaborative, which provided these scientists a window into the greater university,” Meyerand adds. “Both individuals knew we were picking them deliberately for that model. It was exciting, it was the hook. They were going to be rewarded for being collaborative and reaching out to the entire university.”

Jan Huisken

Huisken, from Germany’s Max Planck Institute of Molecular and Cell Genetics, is the inventor of an imaging technology called light sheet microscopy, which captures the sensitive biology of live specimens in its truest functional state. By keeping samples “happy” in their unaltered environment — rather than immobilized or pressed on a slide — the microscope produces stunning real-time images of early embryonic development.

And Skala, previously from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, develops optical imaging techniques that offer new ways to diagnose and treat cancer. By testing a tumor sample’s metabolic response to chemotherapy, Skala’s technology can precisely target the best possible therapy for an individual. It has promising implications for personalized medicine for breast and pancreatic cancers.

During a time of faculty retention pressures campus-wide, exacerbated by state budget cuts, Meyerand says the two hires were invigorating for her department. The unique approach pursued by Morgridge CEO Brad Schwartz gave both entities license to think differently about the hiring process.

Melissa Skala

“What was really cool was we had the opportunity to go out and contact people who we thought would be a great fit for the university and for Morgridge,” she says. “In the case of Melissa and Jan, if we just opened up a position listing and passively waited for applications, neither one of them likely would have applied. People of their caliber are not likely to just put themselves out there.”

The two hires made a strategic impact right away on the department, Meyerand says. They bring to four the number of BME faculty specializing in optical imaging, along with professors Paul Campagnola and Jeremy Rogers — giving BME enough critical mass to be a research center.

Optical imaging, which employs visible, ultraviolet and infrared light, is increasingly valued as a non-invasive technique for seeing inside the body without exposing patients to damaging radiation. Optical also is relatively inexpensive, adapts well to clinical settings and excels at illuminating the functional behavior of cells.

“We have the opportunity to be seen internationally as a leader in optical imaging, and its application to solving pressing clinical needs,” she says. “That’s going to attract more postdocs and students and faculty, and ultimately lead to more high-impact discoveries that improve diagnosis and care.”

“I think the relationship between Biomedical Engineering and Morgridge represents the perfect marriage between the university and the embedded, private research model that Morgridge offers. They leverage each other’s strengths and it puts the pure scientific research at Morgridge closer to real-time clinical applications. With these two terrific hires, this might be the strongest relationship that any department on campus has forged yet with Morgridge. I see endless possibilities.”

Peter Tong, Trustee of the Morgridge Institute and the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation

The new faculty will also be a driving force for grant opportunities, as they create multidisciplinary teams capable of applying optical imaging in different ways. Skala’s technology is versatile enough that more than 10 UW–Madison departments have faculty members who are potential research partners. And Huisken’s technology didn’t exist at UW–Madison prior to his arrival, and is still quite rare in the United States.

“So many people in the School of Medicine and Public Health will be breaking his door down, wanting this technology,” says Meyerand. “It’s going to allow them to make biological and clinical discoveries they couldn’t make with any other technology.”

Collectively, Huisken and Skala have relocated the equivalent of small businesses to Madison through their research teams — bringing more than 10 employees total, a combination of graduate students, postdoctoral scientists and research staff. Their presence will help UW–Madison be more competitive for bigger, more comprehensive research programs.