Interim Years of Growth: 2005-2008

Ross Ethier and Christopher Yip, Interim Directors

“How can I do this better, stronger, faster?” Professor Christopher Yip, interim Director in 2007, asks. It’s a rhetorical question, the motto of the Biomedical Engineer: “How can I enhance and improve upon the existing techniques or tools so you can [gain] greater insight into the problem?”

Historically, the Directors of the Institute have all found a way to tackle the question of how to make IBBME better, stronger, faster in a similar manner.

Ross Ethier, Professor of Bioengineering, Mechanical Engineering and Ophthalmology, was an ideal choice when he was appointed Director of the Institute. Straddling medicine and engineering, Ethier’s research into the biomechanics of cells and whole organs was a natural fit to take over the Directorship from Michael Sefton.

“Luckily,” says Ethier, “Michael had hired a core of fantastic young academic staff members. They, together with the more senior staff, created a real sense of excitement. We all had the feeling that we were building on a legacy of excellence to create the next generation of something truly important.”

The year was 2005, a year that began a massive period of growth and transition for IBBME.

“It was a time of growing undergraduate (Engineering Science) and graduate enrolment – both good problems to have, but sometimes hard to manage,” says Ethier about the experience, “as the public and the university realized the importance of biomedical engineering for 21st century health care and research.”

The problems facing IBBME’s growth, meanwhile, were also challenges associated with its success: it’s cross-disciplinary, non-traditional structure. Ethier explains, “the first [issue] was space, or the lack thereof, in a period of rapid growth. The second was the fact that the IBBME defied easy classification. We weren’t a “normal” department and we certainly were more than just a regular U of T institute – sometimes this confusion was useful, but often times it was dangerous because budget and other structures didn’t quite fit the IBBME model.”

While on Sabbatical in 2007 Ethier left to take an opportunity to head the Department of Bioengineering at Imperial College, London. Professor Christopher Yip, one of the first core faculty hires to IBBME in 1997, stood in as Interim Director.

It was during Ethier and Yip’s tenure as Director that major faculty and administrative staff changes fell, including the hiring of Sandra Walker as Manager of Operations. On the Faculty side, Dawn Kilkenny and Jon Rocheleau were hired. Roles were redefined. A path to further growth was charted.

For his part, Yip is happy about the role he played during this sometimes tumultuous, “super busy” time. “You had young, enthusiastic faculty coming in, who are doing well in challenging times. They’re having a Great impact on teaching,” Yip relates, specifically pointing out Dawn Kilkenny and Jonathan Rocheleau, two faculty members “who are clearly making an impact at both the administrative and faculty levels.”

“That’s what’s good about being a director,” says Yip. “You can make those decisions.”

Yip, who came to IBBME by way of a post-doctoral position in Indiana and graduate school in Minnesota, is sparked by his colleagues, and points to the broad sector collaborations–and their research results–that IBBME is becoming famous for.

“We’re facilitators,” Yip says. “Our group is doing really well at coming up with strategies to innovate new approaches [to] traditional problems.”

And it seems to have worked, both in terms of research and in terms of turning IBBME towards the future. As IBBME delivers on its strategic plans to hire more core faculty and create its own biomedical engineering stream, Yip argues that IBBME has come into its own in recent years—and people are noticing.

“[We’re] engaging people in the notion that the Institute has grown up, [that we’ve] learned to be self-sufficient and independent.”