Prepared for the future

CU Denver's first bioengineering undergraduates: Prepared for the future

July 4, 2017
Bioengineering Undergraduates
CU Denver’s first group of bioengineering undergraduates

“We were all in it together.”

That’s how Jacob Altholz, a recent CU Denver graduate, remembers his experience in the undergraduate bioengineering program, which is part of the College of Engineering and Applied Science with upper division courses taught on CU Anschutz Medical Campus. Jacob and 14 of his classmates are the first group of students to graduate from the program, which is the first of its kind in Colorado.

His fellow classmate, Rachelle Walter, also remembers how much she enjoyed learning how to work together. The program created a cohesive environment that allowed students to work closely with one another and make friendships to last a lifetime.

“There were definitely a few late nights and waves of emotion, but we had each other,” Walter said. “I know something about each of my classmates and I will even be continuing my bioengineering education alongside one of them.”

Both Walter and Altholz are continuing their education. Walter is pursuing a master’s degree in bioengineering at CU Anschutz, while Altholz this fall is a medical student in the U.S. Air Force at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Md. Even in this new field, Altholz is staying true to the core of bioengineering — the cure and prevention of disease. “I’m learning a lot about myself and about medicine and am settled into the new city and way of life,” he said. “I’m hoping I can learn as much as possible and use these days to make the best of myself!”

Walter said the undergraduate program in bioengineering prepared her extremely well for the master’s program at CU Anschutz. She is currently a teaching assistant for the freshman bioengineering course as well as a grader for one of the junior bioengineering classes. “I love being a part of the education that the next graduating classes receive,” she said. “It feels full circle after graduating last May, and it’s really rewarding to be a resource to the students about the program, the campus, my experience, etc. I’ll be working on my master’s project with Thermo Fisher Scientific as I recently landed an internship with the company. The people I work with there are so supportive and I really enjoy the work, so I’m hopeful that it may turn into a job after graduation!”

Here are Walter and Altholz’s reflections on the undergraduate bioengineering program:

Jacob Altholz
Jacob Altholz

Why bioengineering?

A Colorado native, Altholz had excelled at math and science in high school, so an engineering degree seemed like the right path. He chose bioengineering because of its biological nature and the opportunity to work in a field related to health policy, another area of interest for him. “I think of biology as a people-based study and I’m a social person, so I like being around other people,” he said. The bioengineering program gave him the chance to work with others while also challenging his intellectual skills. Little did he know he’d also meet some of his closest friends and be given so many opportunities along the way.

Both Altholz and Walter went through the program while working at the same time, and CU Denver offered them the flexibility to do so. Both found CU Denver to be the perfect atmosphere for students trying to get a degree and start a career at the same time. Walter also enjoyed the diversity of students at CU Denver. “With students coming from all over Colorado, CU Denver is the perfect intersection for students of different backgrounds to meet and form friendships,” she said.

What is bioengineering?

At the undergraduate level bioengineering offers rigorous training, combining mathematical and physical sciences with engineering principles. At the core of bioengineering is a focus on catalyzing technology to cure and prevent disease.

Rachelle Walter
Rachelle Walter

“CU Denver gave us skills that we can sell,” Altholz explained. Bioengineering is a relatively new field with big potential for the future, but as Altholz sees it, the degree is meaningless unless you also have skills and experience when you get it. An engineering degree already puts graduates ahead of the game, but in such a rapidly growing field, students need hands-on experience now more than ever. That’s where CU Denver meets the needs of its students head-on.

The CU Denver undergraduate bioengineering program offered research and collaborative opportunities across departments. In fact, Walter had the opportunity to do an American Physiological Society Undergraduate Summer Research Fellowship, where she was published alongside Associate Professor Richard Benninger, PhD, and Post-doctoral Research Fellow Nikki Farnsworth, PhD.

Between working in a prosthetics lab and working in the cardiology department of the Colorado Children’s Hospital, Altholz was able to get hands-on experience through numerous internships, while being connected to faculty and students of other departments along the way. “Everything I was doing felt relevant,” he said.

What CU Denver has to offer

By attending CU Denver, Walter and Altholz benefited from new facilities and a program tailored to “face the needs of the bioengineering field,” as Altholz describes it. Unlike similar degree programs, which start with a mechanical engineering core and add biological components, CU Denver’s program was created with bioengineering in mind.

We had the opportunity to learn skills and concepts directly in the context of bioengineering,” said Walter. Using CU Denver’s resources and keeping the integrative focus of the program in mind, professors brought in guest lecturers and faculty from other departments to create well-rounded courses.

By maintaining a small core group of students, faculty had the opportunity to offer more one-on- one feedback and really get to know the students’ capabilities. In more than one way, they got to grow up together, leaning on one another when the going got tough, and celebrating one another when they succeeded.