Q&A With Paul W. Brandt-Rauf, Dean of the School of Biomedical Engineering, Science and Health Systems

Paul Brandt-Rauf

Drexel’s School of Biomedical Engineering, Science and Health Systems is considered one of the oldest biomedical engineering schools in the nation since it was originally founded as the Biomedical Engineering and Science Institute in 1958. It became a school — with its present name —in 1997, and now, 20 years later, it has its inaugural dean: Paul W. Brandt-Rauf, MD, DrPH, ScD, who was announced as the school’s leader in August and started in February. 

Q: Welcome to Drexel, and congratulations on being named the inaugural dean of the School of Biomedical Engineering, Science and Health Systems! What were you doing before starting here?

A: I was dean of the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois in Chicago (UIC), where I started in 2008. That school was different than this in that it had four departments. It was somewhat bigger than this school, but this school needs to grow and will grow. This isn’t surprising since the school is still relatively new even though it evolved out of an institute that’s been here for a long time.

Before UIC, I was chairman of the Department of Environmental Health Sciences in Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health from 2002 to 2008. I had been at Columbia for almost four decades starting as a student and got six degrees from there: a bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate in applied chemistry and chemical engineering; a medical degree; and a master’s and doctorate in public health in environmental sciences.

So I did start my education with chemistry and chemical engineering first. And then I got interested in biochemical engineering, and then bioengineering, which is how I ended up going to medical school. My specialty area became environmental health, which combines my engineering and medicine and public health backgrounds.

In a way, it’s been a continuous process, but not exactly in a straight line. There are lots of zigs and zags in between.

Q: And now Drexel has been added to that! How did you end up here?

A: When I was looking to leave UIC, I did look at other public health jobs, because I was in public health. But I realized I was already doing that, so why would I do the same thing? Somebody mentioned to me that there’s this school for biomedical engineering that has health and medicine and engineering, and told me to look into it.

So I did, and I found that this school intellectually combines everything I do, in a way. It allows me to use everything that I’ve done, but it wasn’t just a continuation of what I was doing. It was something new.

Because this school is different — it’s the only school in the country that is like this as a stand-alone place. There are places that have departments, but this is different. It’s got a long history as an institute, which I wasn’t aware of before I started looking at it. So this school is also something new, but not really. It’s got a good base to build on.

And, I have to say, I wanted to be back on the East Coast. I’m an East Coast person and I’m a New Yorker.

Q: So now you’re back on the East Coast — and more specifically, back at a private institution on the East Coast.

A: That was another reason to come to Drexel. I did want to go back to a private institution, because UIC is a public institution. And I wanted to get away from that. Before, like I said, I was at Columbia, which is a private institution.

I had thought that a public institution would be a more engaged university, just because it has a public mission and the University of Illinois is a land-grant school. But obviously, there are private institutions that aren’t the ivory tower and have a history and a reputation and a mission of engagement. That was why I picked Drexel. I felt like it would have a sort of public sense of responsibility but not be tied to the public bureaucracy so much.

Q: So now that you’re here, what are some of your plans for the school?

A: I think that right now, we’re just really focused on a few things. And we’re small. Even for a department in another university’s college of engineering, for example, we would be relatively small. If you want to be a school, and take advantage of the growth opportunities that are out there intellectually, you need to recruit more people. So we have a plan, depending on budgetary and space issues, to continue to add faculty. We just have to decide what areas we want to excel in.

Q: What areas would be? And what would you say that the School of Biomedical Engineering, Science and Health Systems is already excelling in?

A: Well, we’re not going to try to be an inch deep and a mile wide. We want to be a mile deep and cover a few areas very, very well. Certainly, we’re already outstanding at some of the things we do already here, like ultrasound technology. I think there are other certain niches that we could explore. You just need a few more people in these areas. Even during the recruitment process, when I met with groups of faculty, we started those kinds of conversations. Now we’re going to continue having those conversations.

Q: How would your hopes to add new faculty help with this goal of expanding those areas?

A: We’d like to hire new faculty at the pace of one a year. First, we do have to prioritize which of those areas should be prioritized — it may just be the ones that are the most opportunistic now. I think we have to decide that as a faculty first. And then where would we put these new faculty members? We’d need more space, because our school is spread out. I’d like to least get the bulk of people into one place. I’m used to a crowded urban environment, but Drexel’s really got that problem.

Q: What about translational research, which this school is well known for?

A: Translational has always been one of the cores of this school because of the institute it grew out of and the endowment that it has from the Coulter Foundation. And the Coulter Foundation prioritizes not just new knowledge, and not just the typical idea of translation, but actually translating new ideas to the marketplace and actually getting them out there. It fits in perfectly with the school and its history. Because ultimately, we want to translate knowledge for the benefit of society, and that will be through translational research that is innovative, important and impactful.

We want to do as much of that as possible. Drexel has translational research pretty well covered. It could be better, but compared to most places, its pretty good. It’s been ahead of the curve for a long time. If people know about Drexel’s biomedical school, it’s probably because of its translational work.

Q: And if people know about Drexel, it’s probably for the co-op program.

A: Exactly. One of the hallmarks for Drexel in general is the co-op program. It’s great that Drexel is training the next generation the right way and I think the co-op is a big chunk of that.

I believe that educational institutions have to be more relevant in terms of thinking about where the students are going to end up when they’re done. Here, across the University and certainly in this school, it seems only natural.

Q: Speaking of new opportunities — what are your thoughts on growing internationally? I know this school already has a lot of international partnerships.

A: Absolutely. There’s a partnership with Shanghai in China and a budding relationship with Ben-Gurion University in Israel hopefully including a joint PhD program with them. I’ve worked with Ben-Gurion for a number of years and I’d like to see that happen.

I think that leveraging our strengths with other institutions strengths around the world is important. We should take advantage of that and some of our faculty members already are, so I think we can expand that.

I’m also very much interested in increasing our international student body at all levels. Most universities are trying to grow that but for biomedical engineering, it’s probably an easier sell. I’ve worked in more than 180 countries, and I think the potential international partnerships are enormous for us.

Q: Wow. 180 countries?

A: Environmental health is global. So doing things globally for me is a natural.  Most of my travels have been for research or work with external organizations and invitations to lecture.

My travel this year is going to be at a minimum, but in the future I’d love to travel if there are opportunities to connect for biomedical engineering. I’ve spent a lot of time in Israel in the past, so that was an easy connection. I’ve also spent a lot of time in Shanghai also, but not with the university that Drexel works with. So maybe there are other opportunities in Shanghai and China as well that we could explore.

I don’t know where we have alums around the world, but I’ve been around the world many times.

Q: So it’s safe to say you’ve really hit the ground running at Drexel?

A: I’m excited to be here and get to work. I’m just hoping we can get this place to the next level. Judging by the starting base that we already have, it’s definitely possible.

Overall, the goals are to have some growth in new faculty and some growth in the student body. Then we have to get all of these people together in one spot on campus. And that requires money.

The highest issue, and I think this is true for most deans, would be to pursue external fundraising. Our faculty is doing pretty well in terms of getting their own grants for research. We are fortunate because we already have an endowment for the school, and it’s not insubstantial, but you could always use more.

We also have this unusual situation where I’ve gotten to meet Drexel alumni and they have very strong feelings for this school, even if they didn’t graduate from the school. So there are probably many more opportunities in terms of advancement for raising money for the school, and also developing new co-op opportunities, particularly if they have their own companies.

This piece first appeared in Drexel Quarterly's Spring 2017 issue.