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$10.2 million grant enhances research at Boise State and opens a door for biomedical industry in Idaho

The National Institute of Health, Center of Biomedical Research Excellence in Convergent Engineering and Biomolecular Science at Boise State University team. Front row: Erin Mannen, Karen Marker, Rhiannon Wood, Tracy Yarnell and Diane Smith. Back row: Jim Browning, Tyler Brown, Stephen Crowley and Paul Davis. Top left: Ken Cornell. Missing from photo: Benjamin Johnson.

Have you ever wondered who comes up with the ideas for all those medical devices you see in doctors’ offices, clinics and hospitals? Who develops better splints for setting broken bones? What team creates better sensors that provide new data to doctors for quicker diagnosis of treatable health issues? Medical devices like these are developed by teams of people that include biologists, chemists, biochemists, kinesiologists, engineers and other researchers, in places like a recently funded research center at Boise State University.

A long-term collaboration between Jim Browning, professor of electrical and computer engineering and dean of research for the College of Engineering, and Ken Cornell, professor of biochemistry in the College of Arts and Sciences, recently culminated in a five year, $10.2 million award from the National Institute of Health. This award will support the  establishment of the Center of Biomedical Research Excellence in Convergent Engineering and Biomolecular Science at Boise State University—the second award of this type to be awarded to Boise State.

The development grant supports collaborative research among faculty across biomedical and engineering disciplines that focus on the development of biomedical devices, sensors and systems.

Cornell says, “We’re trying to pull engineers into biomedical research and get people who are already involved in biomedical research working to solve their problems using an engineering approach so that we can translate this research into the development of medical devices that will actually see clinical use.”

Renewable for up to 15 years or approximately $25 million in total funding, the award, also known as a COBRE grant, increases essential infrastructure to enable sustainable development of biomedical research at Boise State.

“This is funded by the National Institute of Health to be a center to support research development,” Browning said “The grant pays to improve research capabilities, to develop researchers at Boise State, and to support center operations, a critical aspect.”

The grant provides researchers with opportunities to apply for supplemental administrative and research funding to work on collaborative projects as well as pursue research specific to National Institute of Health topics such as women’s health and the Science of Team Science.

“There’s even a line in the grant for recruiting new faculty,” said Tracy Yarnell, senior program manager for the grant.

Additionally, it funds the purchase of advanced tools for collaborative biomedical research and sponsors programs to support faculty and student use of a new core facility on campus.

Under the direction of Paul Davis of the Micron School of Materials Science and Engineering at Boise State, the new Fabrication, Characterization, and Testing core (called FaCT core on campus) enhances the capabilities and sustainability of four existing College of Engineering core facilities: the Idaho Microfabrication Lab; the Boise State Center for Materials Characterization; the Research, Machining, and Engineering lab; and the Biomechanics and Mechanobiology Lab. Funding also includes salaries to hire technicians who will maintain new tools and instruments and trainers to assist researchers with their use. Additionally, these core facilities can provide services to other higher education institutions as well as industry with a goal of attracting biomedical companies to Idaho.

Browning described the idea behind the merging of core facilities further, “One of the things we’re doing, which is unique in COBRE grants, is that we have an engineering-centric research core. The National Institute of Health uses the term core facilities—shared facilities that faculty can use equipment for an hourly fee and receive technical support. The idea is that it reduces redundancies on campus and allows us to realize biomedical research opportunities within the university and also with external partners. For example, industry partners can come and use these research cores, which is good for Boise State and for the region.”

Beyond administrative support, new equipment and the development of the centralized core facility, the award sponsors collaborative research projects toward the development of medical devices led by faculty and researchers. Project funding includes support for graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. Researchers and students will benefit from professional development opportunities that include training in grant writing and manuscript preparation, travel to professional conferences and workshops in team building and communication.

“We have to learn to do this convergent science to be successful,” said Browning.

Cornell added that, “a key feature of this COBRE is that we proposed a ‘Science of Team Science’ professional training which is going to be run by Steve Crowley, chair of the philosophy department.”

The National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine define Science of Team Science as, “a new interdisciplinary field that empirically examines the processes by which large and small scientific teams, research centers, and institutes organize, communicate, and conduct research. This includes understanding how teams connect and collaborate to achieve scientific breakthroughs that would not be attainable by either individual or simply additive efforts.”

The first group of funded project leaders started working under the grant in April 2023 and includes researchers from the College of Engineering and the College of Health Sciences. Erin Mannen, assistant professor of mechanical and biomedical engineering, leads a team analyzing harnesses used to treat hip dysplasia in infants; Benjamin Johnson, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, leads work on the development of neuro-implants for deep brain stimulation to treat diseases like Parkinson’s; and Tyler Brown, associate professor of kinesiology and co-director of the Center for Orthopaedic and Biomechanics Research, investigates new technologies to detect distal leg fractures in military personnel and athletes. The Institute evaluated each of these research project leaders favorably for their productivity in research and training students. Each research project receives mentoring from previous awardees of the National Institute for Health grants as well as support from internal and external advisory committees composed of biomedical professionals and researchers.

And success attracts success. Even though the first group of research project leaders are just getting started, the award is already paying dividends for research at Boise State. That Boise State received this grant attracts additional funding to similar research on campus. For example, the National Science Foundation recently awarded Benjamin Johnson, assistant professor in electrical and computer engineering, a highly competitive career award, and Mannen has already surpassed required metrics of the award by submitting a National Institute of Health R01 application that received many favorable reviews. The institute’s R01 grants provide support for health-related research based on the mission of the institute which is “to seek fundamental knowledge about the nature and behavior of living systems and the application of that knowledge to enhance health, lengthen life, and reduce illness and disability,” according to their website.

To launch the Center of Biomedical Research Excellence in Convergent Engineering and Biomolecular Science requires significant energy and assistance from many people beyond Browning and Cornell. The grant supports the collaborative administrative efforts of Tracy Yarnell, senior program manager, Diane Smith, reporting coordinator, and Rhiannon Wood, program accountant; as well as the efforts of Paul Davis, director of the new FaCT core facility, and the directors of the four engineering cores: Sarah Haight, Pete Miranda, Ric Ubic and Gunes Uzer. Additionally, Karen Marker in the College of Engineering supports grant writing development aiding researchers in the preparation of proposals.

For additional information about the grant, contact Tracy Yarnell, program manager, at (208) 426-4408 or

Research reported in this publication was supported by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number P20GM148321. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.