The Biological Systems Engineering (BSE) program provides students with an opportunity to combine their interests in biology, chemistry, and engineering. The program offers many opportunities for professional development outside of classes, including undergraduate research, study abroad, and professional organizations. Most students also participate in internships or other work experience. The B.S. program in Biological Systems Engineering is accredited by the Engineering Accreditation Commission of ABET.
Think about what you did today. Did you use water from the faucet, eat breakfast, take prescription medicine, or put ethanol-amended gasoline in your car? A biological systems engineer influenced every one of these activities. Biological systems engineers (BSEs) use the fundamental sciences of biology and chemistry to develop sustainable solutions to some of the most pressing problems our society faces: sustainable energy sources, safe water and food supplies, and conservation of natural resources.
As the name implies, BSEs solve problems using biological systems. These biological systems can be small, controlled microbial systems that produce a product, such as beer, biofuels, or pharmaceuticals. BSEs may work with large biological systems, including streams, wetlands and watersheds, which provide environmental services to society, such as clean water. A BSE uses concepts from biology and chemistry to develop new processes or to design new systems. BSEs also work to protect existing natural systems, through sound planning and management.
Students with an undergraduate degree in BSE work for pharmaceutical companies (Merck, MedImmune, GlaxoSmithKline), chemical companies (DuPont, Dow), food-processing companies (Hershey, ConAgra), environmental consulting firms (CH2MHill, Williamsburg Environmental Group), government agencies (US Environmental Protection Agency, Food and Drug Administration, VA Department of Environmental Quality, Fairfax County), and nonprofit organizations (Waterkeeper Alliance, Peace Corps).
Biological systems engineering was originally called agricultural engineering and dealt with the engineering aspects of agricultural production, including machinery design, food processing, farm structures, waste management, soil and water conservation, and irrigation system design and management. Today, BSEs continue to work in the agriculture industry, in addition to a broad range of other industries.
Biological systems engineering has strong ties to engineering, agriculture, and life sciences. In addition to typical teaching/research faculty, several of our faculty work with the general public through Virginia Cooperative Extension. Cooperative extension is a special part of all land-grant universities; therefore, BSE-type departments are only found at land-grant universities, such as Virginia Tech. Each state has at least one land-grant university. The University of Maryland, North Carolina State University, and Cornell University are all land-grant universities. In addition to the traditional teaching and research missions of all universities, land-grant universities have a special focus on sharing knowledge from the universities with society at large. This mission is generally carried out through the state cooperative extension service.
Currently, biomedical engineering at Virginia Tech is offered as a minor or a graduate degree (MS or PhD). There are three options at Virginia Tech for undergraduate degrees which provide a good foundation for biomedical engineering – Biological Systems Engineering, Engineering Science and Mechanics, and Mechanical Engineering. BSE has a stronger emphasis in chemistry, biology, and systems than either ESM or ME. Both ESM and ME have a stronger emphasis on structures and mechanics. Students pursuing an undergraduate degree in BSE with a minor in biomedical engineering select technical electives from courses recommended by the School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences, based on their particular area of interest within biomedical engineering.
There are many similarities between BSE and the Environmental and Water Resources (CEE-EWR) specialty area in Civil and Environmental Engineering and graduates from each department pursue similar career paths. BSE emphasizes water quality and natural resources protection through sound watershed management. Our students develop a foundation in both biology and chemistry and address engineering problems using a systems approach. Students in CEE-EWR typically focus in wastewater treatment, water supply, hydraulic structures, stormwater management, groundwater remediation, or environmental policy and planning. CEE-EWR students develop a broad civil engineering background, which includes classes in transportation, structures, geotechnical engineering, and construction.
The main difference between BSE and Chemical Engineering is that BSE uses biology as the scientific foundation of our engineering solutions. While chemistry also provides an important scientific foundation, BSEs emphasize the use of biological systems/materials instead of chemicals or petro-based materials. As in Chemical Engineering, students in BSE use biology and chemistry in “unit operations,” such as filtration, chromatography, and fermentation; however, BSE students can also learn food processing, biopharmaceutical production, biomaterials, metabolic engineering, bioenergy production, and animal waste treatment and utilization.
There are many majors at Virginia Tech that are good pre-med/pre-vet preparation. Because BSE has a strong emphasis in biology and chemistry, BSE students take many of the preferred courses as part of their BSE program. Pre-med/Pre-vet students should should select technical electives from the recommended courses for the MCAT exam: