William C. Van Buskirk, PhD, a distinguished professor at New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) who helped pioneer the burgeoning field of biomedical reengineering, has been elected Fellow of the Biomedical Engineering Society.
Van Buskirk was elected Fellow last week during the society’s awards ceremony held in Baltimore, Md. It was the first time the society elected Fellows, awarded to those who have made exceptional achievements in the field of biomedical engineering.
Van Buskirk was recognized for being a leader in biomedical engineering education; he founded two biomedical engineering departments: one at NJIT and another at Tulane University. He was also an early biomedical researcher in the field of bone mechanics and vestibular mechanics.
“I’m immensely gratified to be elected an inaugural Fellow,” said Van Buskirk, who is also director of undergraduate studies in the department of biomedical engineering at NJIT. “When I began working in biomedical engineering in the 70s, I had no idea the field would grow explosively like it has over the last two decades. It’s been gratifying to play a role in the growth of a field that calls upon modern engineering principles to develop new medical devices and new methods of diagnosing and treating disease.”
It’s the third time Van Buskirk has been elected a fellow. He is a Fellow of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and a Fellow of the American Institute of Medical and Biological Engineers.
Van Buskirk, who served as NJIT Provost from 1998-2004, orchestrated the growth of the university’s biomedical engineering department. When he arrived in 1998, NJIT offered only a master’s degree in biomedical engineering. In 2000, Van Buskirk founded the department of biomedical engineering, which would offer not only a master’s degree but a bachelor’s degree and a doctorate. The bachelor’s program began that year; the doctoral program started a year later.
In 1981, when the master’s degree was first offered at NJIT, three students signed up for it. The bachelor’s program began with only 20 students. Now, nearly 25 years later, the biomedical engineering program has 257 undergraduate students, 75 masters’ students and 15 doctoral students. “That’s quite a story, quite an achievement,” Van Buskirk said.
In the fall of 2002, Van Buskirk hired William Hunter, a former professor of biomedical engineering at Johns Hopkins University with a national reputation, to chair the department.
“When I came here as provost,” Van Buskirk recalled, “I realized that biomedical engineering could be one of NJIT’s strong suits. I, along with colleagues, tried to make it a strong department.”
Van Buskirk was the right man for that job - with the right experience. Before arriving at NJIT, he had founded Tulane University’s biomedical engineering department, one of the first such departments in the country. For 14 years he served as head of that department and was later named dean of Tulane’s engineering school. . He left Tulane, after nearly 30 years, to come to NJIT. Working under former NJIT President Saul Fenster, Van Buskirk worked to turn NJIIT into a top research university. He was especially interested enhancing the university’s applied life sciences, a field that includes biomedical engineering. He stepped down as provost last year to return to his first love: teaching.
“I love teaching 18-22 year olds,” Van Buskirk said. “It’s why I first entered academia. I hope my legacy will be to leave NJIT with a very strong biomedical engineering department.”
Given his background, Van Buskirk’s return to teaching is a big gain for the biomedical department. In 1964, he earned his bachelor’s degree from the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He entered the Air Force, where he studied the cutting-edge science of the day: space.
“Being a rocket scientist was the thing to be in that era,” Van Buskirk recalled, “so in the Air Force I became an aerospace engineer. I wanted to research what happens to astronauts when they go up in space. Or what effect does space travel have on the human body. That was my bridge to the field of biomedical engineering.”
His interests in biomedical engineering lead Van Buskirk to Stanford University, from which in 1970 he earned a doctorate in aeronautical and astronautical engineering. He now shares his wide breath of biomedical knowledge with NJIT students. This semester, Van Buskirk is teaching an introduction to biomechanical engineering; he also advises undergraduate students.
Meanwhile, the department that Van Buskirk helped create at NJIT is becoming known nationally for its breakthrough research.
One professor in the biomedical engineering department was recognized by President Bush for her research proving that adult stem cells could help patients suffering from spinal cord injuries, bone and cartilage damage and related diseases. Another professor is developing a new method for finding motion solutions, based in math and physics, which will help athletes, the elderly and convalescing patients improve their movements and gaits.
Researchers are also using robots and computers to create therapies that will help patients relearn movements lost as a result of strokes. They are developing a computer program to help hearing-impaired people communicate. The program recognizes sign language and converts it into spoken English and, conversely, converts spoken words into animated images that can be displayed on a small computer screen. And though the biomedical engineering department is relatively new, it is already receiving $2 million a year in research funding – a fact that delights Van Buskirk.
“The kind of biomedical engineering research we are doing at NJIT enables the medical profession to help people most in need of help,” he said. “It’s just so gratifying to see the field blossom the way it has, and I feel lucky to be a part of it.”