For most of his youth, Dr. David Puleo wanted to be a surgeon; however, upon entering high school, he realized his strong interest in medicine was matched by an equal fascination with technology and engineering concepts. One day, while reading, he came across the words “biomedical engineering.” Intrigued, he began to conduct research and discovered an organization called the Biomedical Engineering Society. He wrote them, asking, “What is biomedical engineering and where can I study it?” After examining the literature they sent him, Dr. Puleo knew what career path he wanted to take. “Biomedical engineering was the marriage of the medical and the technical that I had wanted,” he says. “And it still offered the potential to go to medical school if I ever desired to pursue it.” Dr. Puleo received his undergraduate degree and Ph.D. in biomedical engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY.
Dr. Puleo explains the intent of biomedical engineering as “applying engineering principles to solve problems in medicine.” Biomedical engineering operates within the paradigm of what is called “translational science.” “With biomedical research, the ultimate goal is to improve human health care,” Dr. Puleo says. “With research, you will often hear the phrase, ‘from the bench to the bed.’ In our field, we go ‘from the bed to the bench and back to the bed,’ because we need to genuinely understand the clinical problem before starting the research.”
Dr. Puleo’s primary focus is on bone and tissue regeneration, and one of the clinical problems directing his current research is jaw bone atrophy in edentulous patients seeking dental implants. “If somebody has lost all his teeth, the jaw bone will atrophy. Then, if he ever needed dental implants, there won’t be enough bone to serve as a foundation for the screw-shaped implants,” Dr. Puleo explains. “We’re making what we call ‘space makers,’ which are ceramic devices that mechanically elevate the gum tissue and release drugs that grow bone vertically. Dr. Mark Thomas in Periodontology sees this issue all the time, so what he observes in the clinic is providing the direction for our research into the problem. Again, it’s an example of going from the bed (or the chair in the case of Dentistry) to the bench and back to the bed.”
Developing devices and methods that diminish the effects or halt the acceleration of biomedical problems gives Dr. Puleo a deep sense of satisfaction. “We can go into the lab, put on our lab coats and do some pretty cool stuff. But if it just sits there on the shelf, what’s the point? As engineers, we want to apply engineering principles to problem solving, and that means creating something that can be used by clinicians,” he declares.
The Center for Biomedical Engineering, which moved from the Graduate School to the College of Engineering last year, currently offers only graduate programs. So what advice does Dr. Puleo offer to engineering students possibly interested in biomedical engineering graduate studies? “Focus on becoming a good engineer,” he advises. “Whether you’re specializing in electrical, mechanical, chemical or materials engineering, we can take those fundamental engineering principles and hone them for biomedical engineering application. The most important thing is to have a solid engineering foundation.”