Brad P. Sutton is one of five professors at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to receive the campus’ highest award for excellence in undergraduate teaching. The 2015 awards were presented at the Celebration of Teaching Excellence on April 21, and Sutton’s award was recognized again the following week, during the College of Engineering’s annual awards ceremony.
The associate professor in Bioengineering was recognized for creating an innovative instruction process for core undergraduate courses that are required for Bioengineering majors. Sutton focused on students gaining a thorough understanding of the basic principles that lead to quantitative mathematical models of physiological behavior. This enduring comprehension of the human body’s physiology enables students to easily apply their knowledge to solving biomedical challenges.
“Engineering students learn that they can leverage the mathematics and physics skills they have acquired to quickly understand how the body functions,” said Rashid Bashir, Abel Bliss professor and Bioengineering department head. “Several students have taken the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) before and after Brad’s class and provided unsolicited results of dramatic increases in scores due to their enhanced critical thinking about biological systems.”
The idea of integrating engineering and medicine also is at the center of a new college of medicine for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign that recently received the UI Board of Trustees’ approval.
“Many of our students will go on to develop the next generation of medical technology,” Sutton said, “and about a third of our students will become medical doctors. Training them to understand physiology in a systems engineering framework will enable them to leverage new devices to advance medical care.”
Sutton joined the Beckman Institute’s Biomedical Imaging Center in 2003 and was named its technical director in 2014. He became a member of the Bioengineering department faculty in 2006, and is credited with developing the modeling human physiology and biological control systems classes, as well as a quantitative physiology lab course. He also is an active member of Bioengineering’s curriculum committee.
Mallika Modak, a senior in Bioengineering, said she appreciates Sutton’s approach to developing courses that complement and build on one other, as well as his attention to ensuring the relevance of course material.
“Through real-life examples and highly integrative final projects, Professor Sutton had us apply the tools learned in his courses to actual problems faced in industry,” said Modak. “His development of the curriculum of these courses has made them some of the most beneficial classes I have taken.”
Modak also praised Sutton’s commitment to students’ success.
“Professor Sutton is always open to discussion and is extremely helpful with both course material and other questions,” she said. “When the BIOE 420 final project became very challenging for students, he made himself available beyond his usual office hours, as often as three times a day. His determination to help us succeed could not have been clearer.”
Manu Kumar, a 2014 Bioengineering graduate, concurs with Modak. “Professor Sutton provided me with valuable mentorship in preparing me for graduate school, including guidance in interviewing and applying for fellowships,” Kumar said. “I know of several students who chose to take his courses as electives simply due to his excellence as an instructor.”
In addition to his teaching, Sutton is associate head of the Department of Bioengineering and director of the Magnetic Resonance Functional Imaging Lab at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology. At the Beckman Institute, he and his team of researchers develop technology for imaging the physiology of the brain, focusing on trying to increase the speed at which MRI images are reconstructed from data while also improving image quality. They’re specifically looking at ways to measure new aspects of brain physiology, such as blood flow within the vessels of the brain or getting a high-resolution map of how neurons are connected. Sutton’s research shed new insight on age-related stiffening of brain tissue and included the first high-resolution maps of brain stiffness.