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Engineering Biology for Medicine Inaugural Conference Held at Duke

The new conference hosted by Duke Biomedical Engineering, Nature Biomedical Engineering and Nature Medicine created a collaborative environment to share innovative research

When Ashutosh Chilkoti took over as chair of Duke University’s Department of Biomedical Engineering, one of his goals was to host a specialized conference for biomedical engineers in partnership with a high-impact research journal.

On May 19, 2019, that idea came to fruition in the form of “Engineering Biology for Medicine”, a conference hosted by Duke BME, Nature Biomedical Engineering and Nature Medicine. Spanning four days and held on Duke’s campus, the event brought together more than 200 biologists and engineers — including faculty, post-doctoral fellows and graduate students — from universities and research institutions across the United States and from oversees. 

“The Engineering Biology for Medicine conference was developed to promote engaging discussions about how to harness human biology to devise strategies for probing, diagnosing and combating human disease. Biomedical engineering is highly collaborative, and we wanted to create a conference that embodied that aspect of the field,” says Chilkoti. “We were highly pleased with the breadth of speakers that we were able to attract, and the conference was a great opportunity for researchers to highlight innovative research.”

Conference attendees attend a reception held at the Nasher Museum on Duke’s campus.“In my view, the conference was packed with high-quality talks, and there were lots of questions from the audience and lively discussion with the speakers,” says Michael Basson, a senior editor at Nature Medicine and one of the hosts of the conference. “I feel that the conference provided a snapshot of the most exciting work going on across the different areas of bioengineering and conveyed the promise of the field for improving health.”

Running from May 19-22, “Engineering Biology for Medicine” featured talks that spanned immune engineering, tissue engineering, synthetic and systems biology, genome engineering, and neuroengineering. In addition to speakers from Duke University, presenters also included researchers from a variety of universities across the United States, including Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Johns Hopkins University, Georgia Tech, Columbia University, and the University of California, San Francisco.

“This is a different crowd than I normally see at conferences. Often meetings are somewhat siloed, so you’ll have meetings that are just on genome engineering, or developmental biology,” says Luke Gilbert, an assistant professor from UCSF and a conference speaker. “This meeting was delightful because you’re bringing together different communities of engineers and biologists. And I’ve been able to learn a lot, especially about mechanosensing and organ-on-a-chip models. It was a nice mix of people who are in the same field as me, but more than anything I’ve really enjoyed meeting new people and hearing about their work.”

In addition to notable faculty from prestigious universities, the conference featured New Innovator Mini-Sessions, where researchers who had received the NIH New Innovator Award could discuss their work.

“It was important for us to include these sessions so we could highlight the exciting work from these young researchers,” says Chilkoti. “The NIH New Innovator Award is an impressive accolade, as it celebrates exceptionally creative early career investigators as they pursue high-impact projects.”

Graduate students and post-doctoral fellows could also share their work during the nightly poster sessions, giving students and faculty a chance to network and check in on new research in various labs. At the end of the conference, Gabriel Butterfield (University of Washington), Daniel Dewran Kocak (Duke) and Imran Ozer (Duke) received the poster awards, which included a cash prize and the opportunity to present their work in front of all attendees.

Beyond various research presentations, the conference also included a Meet the Editors session, where attendees asked editors from Nature Biomedical Engineering, Nature Medicine and Science Translational Medicine for advice and feedback about crafting compelling research stories and the processes of peer review and publication.

“The quality of the speakers, their talks and the interest of the audience was evident,” says Pep Pàmies, the editor of Nature Biomedical Engineering. “Most speakers received plenty of feedback, some over 10 questions, following their talks. The panel discussions and poster sessions were also lively. I left Duke with lots of notes to take home and ponder on.” Researchers present their work during the poster sessions at the Engineering Biology for Medicine conference.

After the success of their inaugural event, Chilkoti and others within the Duke and Nature teams hope to arrange follow-up conferences every few years that highlight exciting areas of interest in biomedical engineering and bring together high-profile researchers and promising younger investigators with complementary expertise and interests.

“I think people who attended Engineering Biology for Medicine left our conference with lots of new ideas and new connections,” says Chilkoti. “Our goal was to create an event that would bring together some of the most exciting minds in the field, and I think it was a resounding success.”