Engineering Brain Power: Faculty Pioneer New Technologies for Improved Healthcare

Special from The Record

Oct. 15, 2010Bookmark and Share

Engineering has been a part of Columbia’s mission since its founding. The King’s College charter of 1754 called for teaching “the arts of Number and Measuring, of Surveying and Navigation . . . the knowledge of . . . various kinds of Meteors, Stones, Mines and Minerals . . . and everything useful for the Comfort, the Convenience and Elegance of Life.” That responsibility expanded significantly when Columbia opened the School of Mines in 1864, and in the century and a half since then, what became the school of engineering was the source of an extraordinary array of transformative inventions and new technologies.

Today, the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science explores newer fields such as biomedical engineering, which is the focus of this issue of The Record. “Advances in society have created new problems that we never knew about, but these advances also have given rise to tools that allow us to investigate areas we couldn’t have imagined,” says Feniosky Peña-Mora, who just entered his second year as dean and is working to make engineering a growing hub of an increasingly interdisciplinary university.

The engineering faculty whose work is profiled in this issue are working to solve medical issues as varied as Alzheimer’s disease and pre-term labor using extraordinary tools that they have designed, often in partnership with Columbia University Medical Center. They are creating therapies to regenerate damaged bones, devices that take minutes to diagnose HIV thousands of miles from the nearest lab and technology that marries the human brain’s organizing skills with a computer’s ability to scan millions of images in seconds.

Indeed, the engineering school is a prolific generator of inventions. Over the past 15 years, about 2,000 inventions have been patented by Columbia engineering faculty. They range from such products as software that compresses video and audio data into relatively small files, to sequential lateral solidification—the technology that enables smart phones to display sharp, crisp images. Its biggest blockbuster invention is probably from Dimitris Anastassiou, a professor of electrical engineering, who invented a method of data compression technology whose algorithms are behind the ability to stream video and other data into personal computers. If you own a Roku box or stream a movie on Netflix, you are using a Columbia-generated invention.

—by Bridget O'Brian

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