The UT Austin Department of Biomedical Engineering held its first-ever Academy of Distinguished Biomedical Engineers with dozens of people in attendance and a significant surprise to close out the evening.

The historic occasion recognized Cockrell Engineers who made a considerable contribution to the field of biomedical engineering and UT Austin. The event was a packed house with alumni, faculty, staff, and family members of the seven honorees inducted into the academy.

As a Top 25 Biomedical Engineering Graduate Program within the seventh-best school of engineering nationwide, there were plenty of outstanding scientists to choose from. Faculty recommendations along with votes by the selection committee selected the first class of Academy inductees:

 Laura Suggs presents the award to A.J. Welch's granddaughter.
Professor Laura Suggs presents the award to the late A.J. Welch's granddaughter

A.J. Welch (1933-2022)

Known as A.J. by many, Ashley James Welch was born in 1933 in Fort Worth, Texas and raised by a single mother. He earned his electrical engineering degree from Texas Tech University, where he also met his wife, Pat Combs. He later earned his M.S. in electrical engineering from Southern Methodist University, while working as an engineer for General Dynamics in Fort Worth, and then sought a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Rice University to fulfill his dream of teaching and conducting research. At UT, he was a leading biophotonics researcher with an expertise in how lasers could be used in medical applications. He served on UT Austin's Biomedical Engineering Committee in the late 60s and early 70s, which allowed graduate students to earn degrees in that field and provided a foundation for a fully-fledged academic department in biomedical engineering in 2001. While he passed away in 2022, the Academy recognized Welch for his everlasting legacy of fundamental research and influences that carry on in the lives of students he mentored and colleagues with whom he worked.

Pictured from left to right: Professor Laura Suggs, Honoree Christine Schmidt, Professor Stephanie Seidlits

Christine Schmidt:

As a native of Austin, Texas, Christine Schmidt decided to stick close to her roots in the Live Music Capital of the world and received her B.S. degree in Chemical Engineering from UT in 1988. The experience reconfirmed her passion for engineering research and led to Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering from The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1995. After conducting postdoctoral research in biomedical engineering at MIT in 1996, she realized that cold weather was not for her and came back to Texas to become a professor in both the Biomedical Engineering and Chemical Engineering departments at UT. Along with being the most highly cited researchers in her field for two years, Schmidt was also the inaugural recipient of the Chairmen's Distinguished Life Sciences Award for achievements in neural engineering. The Academy selected Schmidt for her transformative and impactful research contributions, that on a broader scale, promote diversity in the engineering and scientific workforce.

Pictured from left to right: Professor Laura Suggs, Honoree Azita Sharif, Professor Ken Diller

Azita Sharif:

For two and a half years, fear and chaos defined Cockrell School alumna Azita Sharif’s daily reality as a teenager in the 1970s living through the Iranian Revolution, a civil war and an international war, eventually escaping from Iran on foot and immigrating to the United States at the age of 15 years old with a bag in one hand and her younger brother’s hand in the other. After earning her B.S. and M.S. from UT Austin, where she studied cryogenic preservation cell design with her mentor Ken Diller, she spent the next three years earning an MBA at Harvard Business School and a degree in diplomacy from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. Now she is a biotechnology entrepreneur with a strong cross-functional expertise in engineering and medicine. Her company DSI provides technology services beneficial to both the organ transplant and biobanking sectors. She summarizes her goal as: “To positively impact human and public health using engineering with focus on analytical preventive medicine.” The Academy selected Sharif for her dedication to shine a light on the importance of food safety and transparency to prevent cancer and other chronic illnesses.

Pictured from left to right: Professor Laura Suggs, Honoree Richard Smalling, M.D.

Richard Smalling, M.D.

Dr. Richard Smalling is a native Texan who received his B.S. in Aerospace Engineering from UT in 1970, his MSME in biomedical engineering from UT Austin in 1972, his MD from the University of Texas-Houston Medical School in 1975, and his Ph.D. from The University of Texas Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, Houston in 1977. He is board certified in internal medicine, cardiovascular medicine, and interventional cardiology and specializes in the treatment of valvular heart disease and adult congenital heart disease. Named an America’s Top Doctor for the past 15 years, Dr. Smalling received the Distinguished Service Award from the American Heart Association Texas Affiliate in 1990 and is on the editorial boards for several, leading cardiology journals. In addition, he holds six patents and co-founded Windmill Cardiovascular Systems, to produce a new implantable left ventricular assist device. The Academy selected Dr. Smalling for dedicating more than half a century of his life to the advancement of cardiovascular care, technology, and treatment.

Pictured from left to right: Professor Laura Suggs, Honoree Casey Fox, Professor Andy Dunn

Casey Fox:

Casey Fox is a Texas native with roots dating back to the earliest days of Texas. Having been a professional motocross and road bicyclist, he entered college late but brought to UT Austin deep and broad engineering experiences. He received his Bachelors of Mechanical Engineering in 1982, his Masters in Bioengineering in1984, and his Ph.D. in Bioengineering in 1990—all at UT Austin. Now he is a pioneer in research focusing on bone healing and osteoporosis. He has more than 35 patents issued in the U.S. and Europe along with 20 FDA clearances to market and commercialize the orthopedic products stemming from his inventions. A recipient of the Distinguished Engineering Graduate award from Cockrell, Fox has held engineering, advisory board and adjunct faculty positions over the last 30 years at UT Austin and dozens of other academic institutions nationwide. The Academy selected Fox for breaking barriers in the orthopedic space and showcasing the translational possibilities of biomedical engineering research.

Pictured from left to right: Professor Laura Suggs, Honoree Chris Condit, Professor James Tunnell

Chris Condit:

Chris Condit grew up in Lake Charles, Louisiana with his eyes set on attending UT Austin. With no undergraduate degrees in biomedical engineering available at the time, Condit majored in electrical engineering with an emphasis on BME and dove into research with professor A.J. Welch, receiving his degree in 2011. Condit later developed patented intellectual property with UT professor Tom Milner and his startup CardioSpectra. As a dedicated philanthropist and biomedical entrepreneur and partly inspired by his own battle surviving Hodgkin’s lymphoma as a child, Condit founded Texas 4000—an annual charity bike ride to support cancer research. He is a recipient of the Outstanding Young Engineering Graduate award from the Cockrell School of Engineering. The Academy selected Condit for taking his passion for improving healthcare beyond the development of innovative technology to remarkable, humanitarian efforts.

The big surprise of the evening came when an honoree not listed in the program guide was asked to come to the front. The crowd rose to their feet as engineering professor Ken Diller was the seventh, and final inductee into the Academy.

Pictured from left to right: Professor Grady Rylander, Professor Laura Suggs, Honoree Ken Diller

Ken Diller

Diller has been an engineering professor at UT Austin since 1973. He is the founding Chair of the UT Biomedical Engineering Department and was the Chair of the Mechanical Engineering Department—administrative appointments spanning a 19-year period. He is an internationally recognized authority in heat and temperature-related processes in living tissues and their design applications for therapeutic devices. Students describe Ken as someone who genuinely cares about every person who takes his class and is one of the most interesting people they have ever met.

"I was very surprised and honored to be included in the first class for the UT Distinguished BME Academy. It was a real treat to be acknowledged along with my friends who I have known for many years," said Diller.

Tyrone Porter, UT Austin Department of Biomedical Engineering Chair, said the professional accomplishments of all honorees were not the only reason for their selection.

“Not only are they amazing scholars and scientists but they are amazing human beings. It was an honor to have them as our first class into the Academy,” said Porter.