Life as a Hopkins BME: Reflections on Junior Year

Name: Tanmay Gokhale

Year: Class of 2009

Previous Guest Blog Entries:

November 26, 2007: Baltimore Marathon, click here.

November 21, 2006: Life as a Hopkins BME: The Sequel, click here.

April 24, 2006: Life as a Hopkins BME, click here.


I’ve written a few times before about my experiences as a biomedical engineering (BME) student at Hopkins (see links above). Biomedical engineering is a very popular major on campus and the program at Hopkins is ranked the best in the country. Starting in the fall of our junior year, all BMEs take a series of classes called Systems Bioengineering. These classes (formerly known as Physiological Foundations) present the engineering perspective on human physiology – we look at the types of topics any physiology class would cover, but focus on things like mathematical modeling rather than qualitative descriptions of systems.  There are now three semesters of Systems Bioengineering, or “SBE” and each course has its accompanying laboratory section. SBE I focuses on the cardiovascular system, SBE II on the nervous system and SBE III has an emphasis on theoretical systems biology.

One of the greatest things about the way these courses are run at Hopkins is that they are not just taught by one professor. Because of the size and breadth of the faculty both at the undergraduate campus and the School of Medicine, a number of different professors are brought in to teach in their area of expertise. Unlike at most other schools where one professor would teach an entire physiology course, in SBE I last semester, we had 8 different faculty members come in to teach different parts of the course. One whose expertise is in electrophysiology taught us about neural conduction, another who is considered an expert on circulatory system physiology taught us about the mechanics of the heart, and a third who is a pioneer in modeling of heart function showed us how heart problems can be modeled through computer simulations. Quite often, the material they were teaching is based on discoveries made in their own laboratories!

Tanmay22The lab part of SBE is something I particularly enjoyed last semester. Every two weeks, we would have a lab section with an experiment based on what we had learned in the lecture course. Often, our experiments Tanmay21involved using frog models to test properties of neural conduction and muscles. In our third lab session, for example, we focused on understanding the properties of skeletal muscle. We had gone over the structure and action of the muscle in lecture and we performed experiments in lab to demonstrate what we had learned. To do this, we isolated the semitendinosus muscle from the leg of a frog. We worked in pairs of two and were responsible for all our own dissections. We had to isolate and remove the muscle and prepare it to use in our experiments. (All the pictures in this post as well as the second video were taken by Shannon O’Connor)

Someone from the class has posted a video of the professor demonstrating the dissection here:

We hooked up the muscle to our experimental apparatus and looked at the effects of applying loads and electrical stimuli to the muscle. You can see the response of the muscle to electrical stimuli in the video.

Tanmay23In another lab session, we isolated the ventricle of the a frog’s heart. We had studied in lecture how cardiac contraction occurs, and in the lab, we explored how that contraction could be changed by a number of outside factors.  My partner and I isolated the frog’s heart and removed the atria so that the heart would not contract on its own. We then performed a couple different experiments to test the properties of the heart muscle. First we applied tension to the heart to see the effect on the force of contraction. Then we exposed the heart to a couple different solutions and drugs and saw how they affected the force of cardiac contraction.

Not all the labs we did involved animal dissection. One lab used a computer program (that was originally developed by one of our professors!) that simulated the entire human body and in particular, the cardiovascular system. The simulation allowed us to see the effects of different medical treatments on the cardiac system by monitoring our “patient’s” vital signs. We also were able to simulate patients with different cardiac problems and see which treatments could improve their conditions.

The Systems Bioengineering courses and labs have been some of the most interesting courses I’ve ever taken. They’ve combined my interest in biology and medicine with techniques of engineering and mathematical modeling. Through the labs, which have been a lot of fun, I’ve been able to see the experimental applications of what we’ve studied in lecture – an exciting introduction to the cardiovascular system.

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