3° with Wayne Bequette

by Michael Mullaney on December 1, 2011

Wayne Bequette is a professor in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering. We ask Wayne about his work:

Q: Tell me a little bit about your work on creating an artificial pancreas to help people with juvenile diabetes.

A: Developing a fully closed-loop artificial pancreas requires a continuous glucose sensor, a continuous insulin infusion pump and a control algorithm to connect the sensor and pump. We have been tackling this problem one step at a time: first by developing a hypoglycemic alarm to warn of low blood glucose; next by constructing a simple pump shut-off algorithm to prevent hypoglycemia at night; then finally developing a fully closed-loop system. It is absolutely critical for engineers to have good medical collaborators to have a true impact, and I am fortunate to have excellent colleagues at Stanford University who perform the clinical studies.

You started your chemical engineering career working in the oil refinery industry. How did you end up in leading-edge biomedical engineering?

When I arrived at Rensselaer, I took the time to meet with just about every faculty member who was doing systems and control research. This led to me being asked to be on the dissertation committee of a graduate student in Biomedical Engineering, who was working on a drug infusion system to control a patient’s blood pressure and cardiac output. I introduced him to model predictive control (MPC), which was (and remains) the most commonly used advanced control technique in the oil refining industry. In no time he had coded up an algorithm and applied it to his drug infusion problem. About 10 years ago I decided to move into diabetes technology. One motivation was that a sister of mine has type 1 (also known as juvenile) diabetes; it turns out that many researchers in the area have a similar personal connection to the disease.

You seem to have a bit of a green streak, as your research also brushes up against fuel cells, biodiesel, and coal gasification. Is sustainability and efficiency important to you?

In addition to performing research in “green technologies,” I try to live a reasonably energy-efficient lifestyle. Most days (well, nine months out of the year), I bike to campus from my home in Albany. The 25-mile round trip by bike saves a 32-mile roundtrip by car, reducing fuel consumption and carbon dioxide production. The main challenge with my bike ride is that, in both directions, it ends with an uphill climb.

Tell me a little about the books you’ve authored. It has to take a ton of work to write a textbook. Was it challenging?

You certainly learn a lot by writing a textbook. My first textbook, focused on process dynamics and emphasized nonlinear behavior; I wrote it at a time in my career when I was learning about chaos and related topics. My second textbook, focused on control system design, was the first in chemical engineering to emphasize a model-based approach.

When did you know or decide that you wanted to be a engineer?

In seventh grade I told a friend that I liked math and science and he convinced me that I should be an engineer.

What would you say to young students and high schoolers who are thinking about studying engineering or becoming an engineer?

I would say that some of the math that you learn in high school may seem abstract at the time, but the more math that you learn, the better prepared you will be for an engineering career.

Outside of the lab and the classroom, what do you like to do for fun?

Three years ago, motivated by the 2008 Olympics, I began strength training and pole vaulting again. At the age of 54, I am actually a better vaulter than I was in high school, which probably says more about how bad I was in the early 1970’s than how good I am now. In addition to hiking and biking much of the year, I ski in the winter—although not aggressively enough to keep up with my two kids (ages 12 and 15).

To read more about Bequette and his research, see a Rensselaer story here, an Approach post here, and a great Channel 13 story here.