Q&A with incoming BME Chair Steven George

Steven George
Steven George, MD, PhD, will begin as chair of the Washington University Department of Biomedical Engineering July 1. George is professor of biomedical engineering and of chemical engineering & materials science at the University of California, Irvine. In addition, he is the Edwards Lifesciences Professor and director of the Edwards Lifesciences Center for Advanced Cardiovascular Technology. Previously, he was the founding William J. Link Professor and chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering at UC-Irvine from 2002-09. He joined its faculty in July 1995. Photo by Ron Klein

Question: What attracted you to Washington University?
A. I became very interested in Washington University because of my experience in building biomedical engineering programs. I’ve become aware of what pieces of the puzzle you need to build a program that will have an impact. Part of that is having a School of Engineering and other engineering departments, but a big part of biomedical engineering is having a broad and deep medical school. There are really very few places in the country that rival what Washington University has here.

The medical school is internationally renowned, and it provides opportunities in which the department has already been building but also brand new opportunities. As the department continues to expand and build, you need partnerships with the medical school that are very research active, and that was the main draw to Washington University.

Question: What do you see as the strengths of this department, and where do you envision growth?
A. This department has built itself in three or four areas: cardiovascular, neural engineering imaging, tissue engineering and biomaterials, but they don’t do a lot of device work. I think that’s an area we’ll certainly be thinking about for growth. We’re going to be hiring new faculty, so we’ll think about whether we’ll go into a brand new area or augment existing areas. I think there is an opportunity in biomedical devices, and there is a lot of interest from clinicians working with patients.

“I still use the med school training to this day — I wouldn’t trade that for anything. It taught me how clinicians think, how they speak, what the culture of medicine is. It makes creating collaborations easier. I feel like I have an understanding of what clinicians’ priorities are.”

Question: What is your research focus?
A. My research program is really focused on tissue engineering. It started by engineering tissues that you would implant to replace a tissue that might have worn out or was diseased. When induced pluripotent stem cells were created, that became a really interesting opportunity for tissue engineers. You could take cells from a person, create stem cells from them, and from that, create a new tissue. Now we’re using this new type of stem cell to create cells in tissues that have applications in the cardiovascular area. I’m working on a project where we’re trying to create a small version of a tumor and the human heart, and we’re trying to put them on a small device you can hold in your hand. We want to create new anticancer drugs that would have no or minimal side effects. It’s really fun! There is so much creativity you can have as an engineer. Most people think creativity is in the arts or music. Engineers survive or fail based on how creative they are.

Question: How will you integrate medicine and health into the school pillars?
A. The easiest one to think about is entrepreneurship. One feature that is strong at the university I’m coming from is the private sector and biomedical device arena. It’s one of the strongest in the country, if not the world. Because of that, when we were building the program there, we really tried to align the faculty interest and student training with what was going on in the private sector. I thought a lot about how to train engineers to think about problems that might become startup companies. You have to have an environment around you where you have an ecosystem to create young companies. You have an enormous amount of intellectual property coming out of WashU., in the medical school but also in Engineering, and there may be parts of the ecosystem that need to be bolstered.

Question: Why did you choose chemical engineering and medicine?
A. I was always interested in medical school. I met my wife, Sharon, when I was a senior at Northwestern (University), and she was going to medical school. We decided to go to medical school together at the University of Missouri. I really enjoyed all of the basic sciences in the first two years and the clinical rotations in my third year, but I had this constant draw back to research. I found myself thinking about research problems as opposed to clinical problems. I decided that I really wanted to run a research lab at a research university and teach undergraduates and train doctoral students. And to do that, I needed a PhD. Chemical engineering had a certain skill set that would be really useful, and I had so much biomedical training in med school. I use my engineering language as I approach problems, so it’s a great marriage of the two.

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