$50M gift creates Meinig School of Biomedical Engineering

A decade after its creation, Cornell University’s Department of Biomedical Engineering has received a $50 million endowment gift that will expand and elevate it as the Nancy E. and Peter C. Meinig School of Biomedical Engineering. Representing the largest single philanthropic commitment by individual donors to one of the university’s colleges in Ithaca, the gift is made by Nancy Meinig ’62 and Peter Meinig ’61, along with daughters Anne ’87, Kathryn, MBA ’93, and Sarah and their own families.

“This is a pivotal moment for Engineering at Cornell,” said Lance Collins, the Joseph Silbert Dean of the College of Engineering. “The Meinig family’s gift is a game changer, in terms of both its size and the effect it will have. To provide some historical context, the college’s only other named school is the Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, which traces its roots to the 1800s.”

According to Collins, the establishment of the Meinig School is happening at “exactly the right time in the evolution of biomedical engineering at the university.” The BME program is the centerpiece of Cornell Engineering’s new strategic push to advance the wider multidisciplinary field of bioengineering, which impacts the university broadly, from Engineering and the College of Veterinary Medicine in Ithaca to Weill Cornell Medical College and Cornell Tech in New York City.

President David J. Skorton lauded the Meinig family’s many contributions to Cornell over the decades and pointed to BME’s ability to strengthen connections among schools and campuses. “This gift is an incredible continuation of the Meinig family’s generosity to Cornell and will strengthen the university in countless ways, not the least of which is by enhancing research synergies between Ithaca and Weill Cornell,” he said. “By its very nature, biomedical engineering bridges medicine, engineering and the basic sciences while addressing some of the most daunting health issues of our time. There is no more important investment the Meinigs could make.”

Cornell President-elect Elizabeth Garrett added: “The Meinigs – individually, as a couple and as a family – have made a tremendous difference in so many areas for Cornell. Their new gift sets us on a course for increased impact in biomedical engineering and the convergent biosciences, an interdisciplinary effort that will drive advances in health and well-being over the next decades. The Meinig School will be a powerhouse of teaching and research with consequence for generations to come.”

Marjolein van der Meulen, the James M. and Marsha McCormick Chair of Biomedical Engineering and the Swanson Professor of Biomedical Engineering, added that the Meinig School is especially timely in light of New York state’s recent approval of the biomedical engineering undergraduate major.

“As we launch the major in the fall and develop the undergraduate BME program, this transformational gift will provide resources that we previously could only dream about for hiring faculty, recruiting graduate students, and supporting teaching and research excellence,” van der Meulen said. Some of that research includes BME’s innovations and cross-campus collaborations in the diagnosis and treatment of a range of complex illnesses, including cancer, Alzheimer’s, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

The gift was borne out of the Meinigs’ long and close relationship with Cornell and their engagement in several university milestones. Peter Meinig is chairman emeritus of the Cornell Board of Trustees, and he and Nancy Meinig are both presidential councillors and co-chairs of the university’s sesquicentennial committee. “The stars were all aligned for us,” said Nancy Meinig, referring to the couple’s energizing experience with the sesquicentennial celebrations across the nation and in London and Hong Kong and their desire to contribute even further to the university’s current capital campaign, which is nearing the $6 billion mark. Their gift also is inspired by Peter Meinig’s growing involvement with Engineering, where he has been partnering with the dean to help guide and articulate the college’s future strategic direction.

“A big part of why we made this gift is to motivate other people to make gifts to BME, the College of Engineering and Cornell, large or small,” Peter Meinig added. “There are many great opportunities to support and engage with the university.”

Supporting Cornell is truly a family affair, according to daughter Kathryn, executive director of the Meinig Family Foundation whose focus is on youth, education and the arts. “Ever since my parents established the foundation, it was very important for all of us to be involved,” she said. “My two sisters and I are all trustees, and we are trying to instill in the next generation a sense of service and the obligation we all have to give back.”

Long-awaited biomedical engineering major gets green light

Cornell University has received state approval to offer a long-awaited undergraduate major in biomedical engineering (BME) and will begin taking sophomores into the program this fall.

“This has been part of the conversation since Cornell Engineering’s BME department started,” said Lawrence Bonassar, professor of biomedical engineering and an original member of the department, which was created a decade ago and currently offers master’s of engineering and Ph.D. degrees and an undergraduate minor.

“The Meinigs’ gift will give the new school significant resources as we launch the new major,” said Marjolein van der Meulen, the Swanson Professor and the James M. and Marsha McCormick Chair of Biomedical Engineering. “Launching our biomedical engineering undergraduate major is an initiative our faculty have been working on for a long time, and an opportunity our students have been eagerly anticipating,” van der Meulen said.

“College administrators and faculty have known that many engineering students would have majored in BME if they could have the option available,” Bonassar said. A survey of the incoming Engineering freshman class indicated that 60 percent of the students had an interest in biological applications of engineering.

“This major allows Cornell Engineering to attract creative and intelligent prospective students who are interested in biomedical engineering,” explained Jonathan Butcher, associate professor of biomedical engineering, associate department chair and director of undergraduate studies for the department. For the Class of 2019, 12 percent of incoming freshman engineers have indicated BME would be their top choice.

“Our college’s particular strengths in BME fit well into Cornell’s collaborative culture and accentuate our collaborations with the College of Veterinary Medicine and Weill Cornell Medical College,” she said.

Biomedical engineering builds research around a quantitative understanding of the human body as an integrated, multiscale system. The study of mechanisms of disease through engineering analysis can be used to design better therapies, devices and diagnostic procedures to improve human health.

Unlike graduates of many traditional engineering fields, BME graduates must be able to thrive in an environment of variability and think through problems in which the assumptions are poorly defined, Butcher said. For example, a piece of steel has very consistent values for its strength, elasticity and other properties, while in biology, 10 samples of the same type of ligament can be tested and generate 10 different results. “How do you make a product that works robustly and accommodates biological variability?” he asked.

The BME major at Cornell will include a core curriculum with options for four concentrations: biomaterials and drug delivery; instrumentation and imaging; biomechanics; and molecular, cellular and tissue engineering. Application- and concept-driven courses will be integrated from the beginning and will maintain a strong presence throughout the four-year program.

“Engineering education research shows that students are more motivated and perform better when they can see the applications of what they’re doing up front,” Bonassar said. “For BME students, applications to human health will always be there, to connect them to real-world problems … increasing both interest and retention in the long term.”

Other notable parts of the undergraduate major will include senior capstone labs to complement capstone design courses.

Bonassar said the new major also has the potential to significantly shift the college’s demographics: the College of Engineering incoming freshman class is 48 percent female – a historic peak for the college, he said – and of the recent survey of students who listed the BME major as their top choice, nearly 70 percent were women.

“We have worked for over 10 years to build a department with the diversity of expertise and number of faculty to successfully launch an undergraduate program,” said Mike Shuler, the Samuel B. Eckert Professor of Engineering who was the founding James and Marsha McCormick Chair of BME for 10 years. “I am pleased that we have reached that milestone and expect Cornell to become a leader in undergraduate BME education.”

Contact:                     Syl Kacapyr
Phone:                        (607) 255-7701
Email:                         vpk6@cornell.edu