Charting a course in bioengineering

A picture of Anthony Le.

Anthony Le took a leap of faith when he came to Oregon State.

He started working on his doctorate in bioengineering in the fall of 2016 — before the university had officially begun to offer that degree, while the bioengineering graduate program was in its final stages of approval. So, he entered as a chemical engineering major and transferred into the bioengineering program a year later, as one of the program’s first two students.

Le says his decision has paid off.

“I have been the guinea pig for everything so far,” Le said, laughing. “But it’s been great for me. There are a lot of opportunities for a self-directed student who knows what they want to do. It’s truly an interdisciplinary program, so there is a lot of freedom to create your own path.”

Le first became interested in bioengineering as an undergraduate at Wofford College, a small liberal arts college in South Carolina. Initially intending to go on to medical school, Le loaded up on science and math classes. But as his education progressed, he found himself leaning in a different direction.

“I decided I didn’t really want to go to medical school,” Le said. “But I was still very interested in the applied sciences — biomedical engineering in particular. So, I started looking at graduate programs in those areas.”

After wrapping up a bachelor of science in chemistry, Le headed out to California to work for six months as an analytical chemist at E. & J. Gallo Winery while he weighed options for his academic future. On a recruitment visit to Oregon State, he met Adam Higgins, associate professor of bioengineering, who told Le about the new interdisciplinary graduate program he was working to create.

A follow-up email from Higgins helped Le make up his mind to come to Oregon State, by tipping him off to an opportunity to work on a project with Ravi Balasubramanian, associate professor of mechanical engineering and robotics. That project involves taking a piece of robotics technology — a mechanism that gives robot grippers the kind of adaptive grasp needed to securely hold onto curved or irregularly shaped objects, such as balls — and translating it into a surgical implant that could someday help patients who are undergoing tendon-transfer surgery to restore lost grip function.

The implant project seemed like the perfect fit for Le.

Le started working with Balasubramanian in September 2016. During his first year, the graduate core curriculum in bioengineering was still in development, so he augmented his schedule with elective courses in robotics. As a result, he will graduate with a graduate minor in robotics.

“The robotics coursework is very complementary to the work that I do in biomechanics,” Le said. “That speaks to the interdisciplinary aspect of this program. We also work closely with orthopedic surgeons in the Carlson College of Veterinary Medicine. For example, I’ve learned sterile technique and have gotten to scrub in on surgical procedures.”

Jim Sweeney, professor and director of the bioengineering graduate program, co-advises Le, along with Balasubramanian.

“It’s been such a pleasure to work with Tony and Ravi,” Sweeney said. “Tony has embraced being a pioneer in the new program. His research, combining theoretical and applied aspects of mechanical engineering, robotics, orthopedics, and muscle physiology, represents very well the kind of education and training that the degree is aimed at.”

Oregon State’s interdisciplinary graduate program in bioengineering offers master’s and doctoral degree paths, each centering on a highly individualized, focused research experience. Participating faculty from across the university serve as mentors and advisors. The program provides students with resources and faculty expertise to conduct specialized study in one of five core areas: biomaterials, biomedical devices and instrumentation, human performance engineering, medical imaging, and systems and computational biology.

Le is confident he’ll have a variety of career options open to him when he’s earned his doctorate. He envisions working with surgeons and engineers in clinical settings, or with surgical implant manufacturers, or even with prosthetic and orthotic designers. He passed his qualifying examination last spring, and he’s on course to finish in early 2021.

“Coming from a chemistry background at a liberal arts college, with no engineering experience, it’s great to know that I can work hard enough to become an engineer,” he said.

by Keith Hautala
MOMENTUM Issue Archives

April 1, 2019