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Paul Campagnola
August 11, 2020

Long a leader in imaging, Campagnola takes reins of BME

Written By: Tom Ziemer


By several measures, Paul Campagnola’s rise in the field of biomedical engineering qualifies as rather improbable.

For starters, Campagnola was the first in his family, a working-class bunch from the Finger Lakes region of New York, to attend college. And when he did—at Colgate University as an undergraduate, then Yale University for his PhD—he studied chemistry.

But when he couldn’t find a faculty position in his discipline, he had to reinvent himself—building optical microscopes instead of spectrometers and examining biological questions through a structural lens shaped by his background in physical chemistry.

“This was serendipity at its best,” says Campagnola, who is now the Peter Tong Department Chair and a professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, having taken over the department helm in July 2020.

Over the past three decades—first at the University of Connecticut Health Center, then at UW-Madison since 2010—he’s established himself as a leader in optical imaging and microfabrication techniques to 3D print biologically representative models for studying diseases. Specifically, his lab examines structural changes in the extracellular matrix, the molecules that surround cells, that occur during the progression of several forms of cancer and connective tissue disorders.

In the late 1990s, Campagnola developed and demonstrated the viability of a then-nascent imaging modality called second harmonic generation microscopy that’s now a standard technique. In 2019, the Optical Society named him a fellow. A year later, Campagnola was inducted into the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering’s College of Fellows, an honor reserved for the top 2% of medical and biological engineers. He’s also served in a variety of leadership roles, both at the department and university levels.

“I feel it’s a good time for me to give back, because I’ve come far enough along and can bring this real broad range of experience and help develop our young faculty,” says Campagnola, whose daughter, Gabby, is a 2019 UW-Madison civil and environmental engineering graduate.

And Campagnola feels it’s an ideal time—COVID-19 pandemic aside, of course—to lead BME. The department has added six new faculty members (Kevin Eliceiri, Aviad Hai, Melissa Kinney, Kip Ludwig, Colleen Witzenburg and Filiz Yesilkoy) in the past two years, building its growing strength in neural engineering and photonics. The Tong Department Chair, endowed in 2019, adds flexible financial resources, and the department will unveil a new teaching lab space on the first floor of the Engineering Centers Building for the fall 2020 semester.

“Our department is just so well-poised for success for a long time,” he says.

Campagnola notes that while BME has excelled among engineering fields in gender balance, the discipline—and his department included—needs to improve its racial diversity at all levels.

He sees a continually growing demand for the practical, relevant training BME provides students through its design-intensive undergraduate curriculum.

“Our program’s advantage is we give our students so much hands-on experience. I just can’t overstate the importance of our undergraduate design program. The feedback we get from employers is just incredible,” he says. “We’re an aging population. We need engineers who can solve real problems. And I think we really prepare our students very well to go off in the world and meet those challenges.”