20th Doctoral Degree Brings Tier One Closer

By Nadia Macias

UTEP News Service

Nearly 40 years after the inception of its first doctoral degree, The University of Texas at El Paso expects to soon offer its 20th.

Thanks to the recent approval by the University of Texas System Board of Regents, a Ph.D. program in biomedical engineering is now on the horizon.Thomas Boland, Ph.D., will head UTEP's 20th doctoral program, in biomedical engineering, if it is approved by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. Photo by J.R. Hernandez / UTEP News ServiceThomas Boland, Ph.D., will head UTEP's 20th doctoral program, in biomedical engineering, if it is approved by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. Photo by J.R. Hernandez / UTEP News Service

“It’s good news that the UT System approved this program,” said Thomas Boland, Ph.D., professor of metallurgical and materials engineering, who will head the program. “It shows that they value the research here and the faculty involved – it’s a sign that we’re getting closer to Tier One.”

Boland expects the program to add 25 doctoral students at UTEP over the next five years – increasing the number of doctoral graduates the University will have.

“Doctoral degree production is a key indicator of the level of research that is being conducted at a university, and as we aspire to be Tier One, we will be seeing more students engaged at this level,” said Benjamin Flores, Ph.D., dean of the UTEP Graduate School.

Indeed, between 2002 and 2011, doctoral enrollment at UTEP saw a tremendous growth of 180 percent, with a total of 656 doctoral students enrolled by the end of 2011.

“Our immediate goal is to graduate 100 doctoral degree recipients just in time for the Centennial,” Flores said. “One hundred graduates for a 100-year celebration.”

According to Flores, the University is on track toward that goal -- last year it awarded 79 doctoral degrees.

Boland hopes to catch the attention of students looking for Ph.D.s through the planned focus of the newest program: biomedical engineering for low-resource settings and the developing world.

“With this novel theme, we think will be able to draw students into the program,” he said.

According to Boland, most of the faculty who will be part of the program are already involved in some sort of related research.

For example, several UTEP electrical engineers are working on remote breast cancer diagnostics, or telemedicine, to help save patients money. Another faculty member is working on a special backpack for doctors working in the field. Boland’s own research revolves around low-cost skin cell printing through the use of the widely affordable inkjet printer.

One of the latest faculty members on board who will complement the planned program is Roger Gonzalez, Ph.D., founder of LIMBS International. His nonprofit organization is well known for designing highly functional, ultra low-cost prosthetics for the “poorest of the poor.”

“Our research and development is going to be headquartered here,” Gonzalez said. “We really want to use UTEP as the base for us to expand and develop more products.”

Thus far, the University has invested $5 million toward a new Biomedical Engineering Annex that will house these researchers and their equipment.

“Biomedical engineering is a very research intensive field,” Boland said. “We’re going to get very dedicated graduate students that will increase the quality of research, and in time, attract more external funds.”

External funding, or the number of dollars brought in for research from outside sources, is another Tier One stipulation that the new doctoral degree will help fill.

The University had more than $76 million in annual research expenditures in 2011-12. The goal is $100 million – a target not too far off if more research-focused degrees such as biomedical engineering continue to be added.

“We’re all getting older … and as we live longer, we have more health problems – so we need solutions,” Boland said. “Some of those solutions are going to be designed by engineers.”

UTEP’s first doctoral degree was established in 1974 in geological sciences.

The next doctoral degree was not added until 1989 after the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) wong a civil rights suit against the State of Texas charging discrimination against Mexican-Americans due to inadequate funding of “non-elite” colleges.

After MALDEF won the case, funding for UTEP increased, and doctoral degrees began being added almost yearly. The next doctoral degree in the works is manufacturing engineering.

Students can expect to be able to enroll in the biomedical engineering doctoral degree and a master's degree in the same field sometime next spring or fall. The programs must first be approved by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.