When David C. Munson. Jr. took the helm of the College ten years ago as the Robert J. Vlasic Dean of Engineering, he recognized the power in connecting top faculty in other U-M schools, who identify and contend with challenges in arenas such as medicine and health, with talented problem-solvers in engineering.
Doctors know what tools they wish they had, and which devices and tests should work better. Collaboration with engineers can help them find the solutions. Munson and James Woolliscroft, former dean of the Medical School and the Lyle C. Roll Professor of Medicine, worked hard to forge closer ties between the College of Engineering and the Medical School, enabling these projects.
To help their faculty team up more easily, they started the process that led to the joint biomedical engineering department. They offered lab and office space in the new North Campus Research Complex, purchased in 2009, to faculty and students in these nascent collaborations so that they could work side by side.
“It gave us a physical place where we could realize our dreams for collaborative research around a problem, totally agnostic of school or college,” said Woolliscroft.
But quality healthcare requires more than the right tools. Running a hospital or health system is an enormously complex task, and better management can reduce the risk of mistakes, boost efficiency and ultimately improve patient experiences. Amy Cohn, an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and a professor of industrial and operations engineering, said of Munson and Woolliscroft, “They recognized that we have not tapped the full benefit of the systems perspective to improve how healthcare is delivered.”
Cohn is the associate director of the Center for Healthcare Engineering and Patient Safety, started in 2011, which examines hospital processes and educates nurses and doctors. The students and faculty take a hard look at the U-M Health System to find opportunities for better efficiency and improved safety in processes that have long been taken for granted.
Beyond patient care, public health offers fertile ground for collaborations, such as those to clean up air and water. “We now operate on the principle that it’s not enough to study the problem. We have to find sustainable solutions to the problem,” said Martin Philbert, dean of the School of Public Health. His attitude is reflected across the university.
Engineering faculty are also crucial partners in an effort to develop driverless car technologies – including the vehicles, road and traffic infrastructure, and transportation policy. With involvement from over 55 companies since its launch in 2013, the Mobility Transformation Center (MTC) is already one of the largest industrial partnerships at U-M.
“The college and university have a long history at the forefront of automotive and mobility technology, and this initiative strengthens that position,” said Huei Peng, the Roger L. McCarthy Professor and director of MTC.
Computer simulation and the handling of big data sets are becoming critical tools for scientists of all stripes. Engineers apply advanced computing to solve problems and also enable more effective simulations and data analysis. Engineering is a supporting pillar of two new data science institutes, launched in 2015: the Michigan Institute for Data Science and the Michigan Institute for Computational Discovery and Engineering.
“Dave set the tone for new interdisciplinary collaborations,” said Alec Gallimore, associate dean for academic affairs, the Richard F. and Eleanor A. Towner Professor of Engineering, an Arthur F. Thurmau Professsor, a professor of aerospace engineering and Munson’s successor as dean. These ongoing partnerships across campus, industry and government will help open new avenues toward meaningful advances for society, a journey that will continue for many years to come.