The state's two largest universities are planning to meld some of their main strengths - medicine from UNC-Chapel Hill and engineering from N.C. State University - to create a joint undergraduate degree in the hot field of biomedical engineering.
The archrivals-in-seemingly-everything essentially will become the same university for students in the new program, who would be able to treat both campuses like home, take advantage of classes even outside their majors at both institutions and earn diplomas bearing the names of both.
"It takes two very high-profile programs and two very high-profile universities and merges them in a new way," said NCSU's top academic officer, Provost Warwick Arden. "It capitalizes on the strengths of both, and when it all comes together, I think it's going to be one of the finest biomedical engineering programs anywhere."
The first candidates for the new degree could enroll as early as next fall if the new program earns a thumbs-up from the UNC Board of Governors, which is expected to consider the proposal early next year.
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Blending key strengths of the flagship universities in a high-profile program is expected to create a model for similar collaborations across the 17-campus UNC system - an attractive idea at a time when state funding for the schools has been shrinking.
"We are entering an era in higher education where each university isn't going to be able to do everything, and I think it is becoming more apparent that schools are going to have to pick some things they are going to focus on, and others that they aren't going to focus on," said James Dean, the provost at UNC-CH. "An in-between model is to be able to create something that's between two universities as this is, and if you look at other schools in the system that are relatively close to each other, there is an argument to be made for using this as something of a model."
Biomedical engineering is a relatively new discipline, standing at the intersection of life sciences and engineering. Demand is expected to be high for space in the new program.
The two universities have been building to this point for more than a decade. In 2003, they established the joint department in the field and started offering joint graduate degrees in the discipline. That program is producing about 20 graduates a year, said Nancy Allbritton, who heads the joint department.
Biomedical engineering is an obvious source of the kind of spinoff products and companies that universities are trying ever-harder to generate - particularly public universities that get money from state leaders who are eager for economic development.
The program's faculty already has spun off at least 25 companies, about 10 percent of the graduate students are involved in startups, and even the undergraduate classes have generated two or three spinoff companies, Allbritton said.
By bringing in undergraduates, the new program exponentially will increase the size of the department, adding perhaps 150 to 200 new students a year, she said.
NCSU offers an undergraduate degree in the discipline already, and UNC has an applied science degree with a biomedical engineering track. The new joint program will bring those programs together and make both stronger, Allbritton said.
"If you're in biomedical engineering, it has been how you choose between the two universities in the past," she said. "You have a powerhouse medical school and a powerhouse in engineering, and you almost have to decide, 'OK, I've got to go more engineering, or more medicine.'
"Now, you won't be forced to make that choice."
'Made in heaven'
The joint department focuses mainly on five areas of biomedical engineering, Allbritton said, each chosen to build on complementary strengths at the two universities.
For example, rehabilitation engineering will harness UNC-CH's expertise in fields such as clinical medicine, allied health sciences, physical therapy, physical rehabilitation and neuroscience, along with N.C. State's depth in industrial and systems engineering, and mechanical and biomedical engineering. Allbritton called the blend a "match made in heaven."
The other four areas of concentration are:
• Miniature electronic devices for use in, say, diagnosis.
• Novel imaging technologies, particularly those that are noninvasive and are based on ultrasound technology.
• Regenerative medicine for functions such as repairing and replacing cartilage and bone.
• Creating better drug delivery systems, such as nanoparticles engineered for that purpose.
"The key is that these five focus areas really leverage the assets of State and UNC so that we can really have blockbuster groups of people between the two institutions," Allbritton said. "We can pull in the medical people and the engineers, and it's really an amazing package because you get people in all these research fields working together."