When William “Jamie” Tyler chose to attend UAB as an undergraduate in the 1990s, he was motivated by a chance to be part of something brand new—a fledgling NCAA football program.

Now, more than 30 years after showing up as a freshman offensive lineman, Tyler is returning to UAB, and once again, he says his motivation is all about being part of something entirely new. “Neuroengineering,” Tyler said when asked about his decision to return to UAB. “As soon as I heard UAB was starting a neuroengineering Ph.D. program, it was a no-brainer.”

jamie tyler screenshotWilliam “Jamie” Tyler, Ph.D., grew up in Pelham and still has family in the Birmingham and Nashville areas. While Birmingham and UAB have changed dramatically over the past 30 years, Tyler says the biggest surprise to him has been the things that haven’t changed. “My biggest shock was that places like the Pita Stop are still here. I always knew UAB was going to grow and transform, so that’s not surprising.  You have all these new buildings and changes that could have made the place unrecognizable, but then there are these familiar small businesses that have survived and are still thriving.”Tyler, a two-time graduate of UAB, officially joined the faculty earlier this year as the School of Engineering’s first strategic hire in Neuroengineering. The school is hiring faculty across multiple departments to address neurogenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Disease, disability arising from spinal cord injury and stroke, and other important medical problems using engineering technologies such as brain-computer interfaces, artificial intelligence, and neuromodulation.

To train future neuroengineers, UAB has also launched a joint Ph.D. program between the UAB Schools of Engineering and Medicine. While there were many factors that made the move to UAB attractive, Tyler says it was the opportunity to get in on the ground floor of the neuroengineering doctoral program that was most intriguing. “UAB has always been strong in basic neuroscience, but I stopped doing neuroscience a decade ago and started doing things that are more accurately described as neuroengineering, which is much more applied science,” Tyler said. “There just aren’t a lot of formal academic settings concentrating on this type of work, so this is definitely a unique opportunity. The fact that it is a move home for me and closer to family is a bonus.”

UAB’s Neuroengineering Ph.D. Program is a novel standalone program that spans the participating Schools rather than being housed in a single department. That unique nature reflects the highly collaborative and multidisciplinary environment at UAB, which creates opportunities to lure the nation’s top innovators like Tyler. “Jamie’s pioneering work using ultrasound to modulate brain and nerve function has opened up tremendous opportunities for treating a wide array of conditions,” said School of Engineering Dean Jeff Holmes, M.D., Ph.D. “We were able to offer him appointments across three departments in three different Schools here at UAB, so that he can work directly with clinicians to realize the full potential of the therapies is developing. The interdisciplinary and pioneering nature of his work, together with the fact that he is a graduate of UAB, made Jamie the perfect person to be our first Neuroengineering faculty hire.”

Part-Time Academic, Full-Time Innovator

In truth, Tyler’s work has never fit comfortably in an academic setting. After earning a Ph.D. in neuroscience from UAB in 2003, Tyler went on to do a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard University. Over the past decade, he has held faculty positions at Arizona State and Virginia Tech, but during that stretch, his began to split his time between the academic and business worlds as he began to do pioneering work in the field of neuromodulation.

“I’m mostly known for discovering that you can use low-intensity pulse ultrasound to modulate brain activity non-invasively, which is what we call neuromodulation,” he said. “Everything we knew about the brain before was electrical and biochemical. But you see changes to the brain all the time when people get knocked unconscious from being hit in the head. There is no electrical charge transfer, no chemical intervention. They just get knocked out. So I was curious about how mechanical waves might affect brain activity, and I couldn’t find anything on it.”

To be fair, Tyler was not the first to use ultra-sound technology on the brain. But previous efforts involved high-intensity ultrasound waves to heat up the brain and literally burn parts of the brain away. “I was interested in what happens if you use that same technology at low intensities,” Tyler explained. “Instead of burning away brain tissue, can you just shake the synapse a little bit and get it to change its activity?”

The answer, it turned out, was yes. And with that discovery, Tyler’s immersion in the business world began. In 2008, he founded SynSonix, a company that developed neuromodulation technology for the control of post-traumatic pain. In 2011, he joined Virginia Tech, where he established a neuroengineering research team to develop neuromodulation methods and systems. Later that year, he established a second company, Thync.

To date, Tyler has founded five different companies that have spun out of his research, and he has 45 patents. In 2014, Tyler returned to Arizona State as a part-time faculty member while still running a company from Boston.  He later would move to ASU full time to found and direct a public-private partnership called the WearTech Applied Research Center, which fostered the development and commercialization of wearable technologies.

Cross-Disciplinary Nature

That union at Arizona State between academia and entrepreneurship was a natural fit for Tyler, but he says historically, that sort of arrangement is rare—except at UAB.

“It used to be that academics and entrepreneurship didn’t mix,” he said. “You either did one or the other. But UAB is different. Even when I was a student here in the 90s, there was an energy here that came from scientists working together across disciplines.”

Few faculty members represent that cross-disciplinary potential better than Tyler, who holds positions in three different schools at UAB. In addition to being the first Neuroengineering faculty hire, Tyler is a professor of Biomedical Engineering (Schools of Engineering and Medicine), Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (School of Medicine), and Occupational Therapy (School of Health Professions).

He is also Co-Director of the UAB Center for Engagement in Disability Health and Rehabilitation Sciences (CEDHARS), as well as the center’s Director of Innovation.

“It is very exciting to have Dr. Tyler here at a time when he can be involved in so many different facets of our academic and research enterprise,” said Lynn Dobrunz, Ph.D., Professor of Neurobiology, Co-Director of the Neuroengineering Ph.D. program, and Director of the Neuroengineering and Brain-Computer Interface Initiative. “I knew him when he was a graduate student, and I was aware of the success he has had over the years since leaving UAB. His background makes him an ideal fit for UAB Neuroengineering because he is a scientist who has experience bridging those gaps between research, product development and commercialization.”

At UAB, Tyler’s roles in the Schools of Medicine and Health Professions will allow him opportunities to interact with patients who benefit from his work. That interaction is something Tyler says will be essential to his work, but also welcomes the opportunities to interact with faculty and students from across campus.

“In many ways, neuroscience forces you to be multi-dimensional and cross disciplinary,” Tyler said. “Even when I was an undergraduate, neuroscience was this weird mix of different fields like engineering, mathematics, computer science and biology. In a way that molded me as a neuroengineer, because I wasn’t an engineer and I wasn’t a biologist. I was making my own path.”

Now that that path has brought him full circle to UAB, Tyler says he looks forward to shaping new generations of explorers and entrepreneurs. “Some universities seem to discourage entrepreneurship, but they want more of that at UAB. I believe this is an institution where I can spend the rest of my career giving back and helping other faculty be more entrepreneurial.”

Vagus, Baby!

From Gridiron Dreams to a Career Helping Athletes Find Focus

UABArchives Tyler 1Jamie Tyler’s academic and entrepreneurial success would make any university proud. But the fact is that Tyler’s decision to attend UAB had little to do with academics, and everything to do with football.

“I came here to play college football,” said Tyler, who played offensive line in the early 90s under Blazer Hall of Fame Coach Jim Hillyer, Ph.D. “It was just luck that UAB was developing one of the top neuroscience programs in the nation, because I would have gone anywhere for the chance to play football. UAB was starting its first official year of football in 1991, and I knew some of the coaches, so that’s why I chose UAB.”

Even though his main motivation was football, Tyler deviated from the stereotypical jock route by spending two years of his undergraduate career investigating the influence of intestinal cholecystokinin octapeptide (CCK-8) on CCK Type-B receptors to regulate satiety. He went on to earn a Ph.D. in neuroscience from UAB, but his interest in athletic performance was far from over.

In addition to his pioneering work in neuromodulation, Tyler has also worked with athletes and with the U.S. Department of Defense on projects that involve electrical stimulation of the brain’s cranial nerves to modulate arousal, tension, and sleep-wake cycles, to name a few.

“When you look at factors that have an impact on performance or what drives disease, it often comes down to stress and lack of sleep,” Tyler said. “We have found that by putting a stimulating device inside the ear, you can affect the Vagus nerve in a way that removes distractions and allows athletes to focus. Other researchers have achieved similar results using implants or handheld devices that you press against the side of the neck. But for our purposes, we wanted the subjects to have free use of their hands, so we chose earbuds. They had the added benefit of already being familiar, so there is a level of comfort there.”

Learn more at Tyler's Lab site 

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Co-op program creates a pipeline into a growing industry

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BioHorizons is a Birmingham company whose history is rooted in UAB. Today, thanks to a growing and successful co-op program, it appears that BioHorizons and UAB will continue to be linked far into the future.

The dental-implant company, which started as a spinoff of research from the UAB Schools of Engineering and Dentistry, has hired more than a dozen UAB alumni and students over the past 28 years. More recently, though, its co-op program has begun to bring in current engineering undergraduates—creating a talent pipeline for students to get a head start in a growing industry.

“Hands-on experience has always been a key element of engineering education,” said Neil Adams, director of the Engineering Career Center. “The success of our program depends on strong co-op and intern partners, like BioHorizons, who offer quality experiences to our students so that they apply their engineering knowledge while also learning how to be a contributing part of a professional organization. We are proud of this continued partnership and look forward to supporting Blazer engineering co-ops at BioHorizons for many years to come.”

A Blazer Legacy

BioHorizons was started in 1995 by the late Martha Bidez, Ph.D., then a faculty member in the School of Engineering who would serve as the company’s first CEO before selling the company and returning to UAB in 2009. Over the years, the company has hired a number of UAB alumni, including several members of its leadership team (see sidebar).

In 2016, however, the company’s ties to UAB got a little closer when Ashley Boggs became the first UAB undergraduate to join the BioHorizons co-op program—a program that provides students the opportunity to work full-time at the company for three semesters, alternating with school. The experience is paid, and students work alongside engineers throughout their time at the company.

Boggs extended her co-op by working part-time at the company until she was hired full time after she graduated in 2018. Today, she is a Digital Dentistry Engineering Manager, and she credits her co-op experience for opening her eyes to possibilities she had never previously considered.

“I had a vague idea that I wanted to work with implants—like hips, knees, ankles—but I didn’t know anything about the dental-implant industry at all,” said Boggs. “During my sophomore year, I went to the Engineering Career Center and told them that I couldn’t keep sitting in class doing problems from a book. They told me about a local company called BioHorizons that was doing on-campus interviews.”

The interview changed Boggs’s personal career trajectory, but her story is not an unusual one. While the engineering curriculum prepares students for a wide variety of careers, it’s often that first on-the-job experience that opens eyes and doors to career opportunities in fields students may have never been aware of.

That was the case for UAB graduate Jonathan Gordon, another former co-op participant who now works as a packaging engineer for BioHorizons. “I started out on a pre-med track, but coming from a very small town to UAB was a big transition,” Gordon said. “I dropped the pre-med route pretty quickly and started looking for other options.”

Like Boggs, the Engineering Career Center helped connect Gordon with a co-op position at BioHorizons, and that, in turn, led to full-time employment. “I realized pretty quickly that I love this industry. It’s exciting to be a part of this.”

An Undergraduate Pipeline

Although Boggs was the first UAB student hired into BioHorizons' co-op program, she soon had company. Three other Blazers followed her into the program (Josh Moore, Karly Casey and Gordon), and all four stayed on to work full-time. That kind of retention is notable for an undergraduate experience that by its nature is often exploratory. 

“Since we started the co-op program about 10 years ago, we have had about 17-18 engineering students in our program—two of which have been in our regulatory department and the rest in research and development,” said Tom Lewis, BioHorizons manager of product engineering. “We feel that it has been very successful, and to date we have hired five as full-time employees.”

That transition from co-op to full-time employee makes sense when you consider the investment BioHorizons makes in students over a three-semester co-op. Each student must learn Quality System processes before getting down to work with tasks, such as design control, drawing release, and CAD modeling. “Each student is trained, but it takes hands-on involvement to learn all of these processes,” Lewis said. “It’s also helpful for students to experience how different departments work together for a common goal.”

In addition, students must learn industry standards and technologies in the medical device industry. “This takes longer,” Lewis said, “but over time they begin to understand the ‘whys’ behind the design of dental implants, restorative components and instruments. Although we have the expectation that co-ops produce for us, my hope is that when they look back they realize the value of their experience here, and as they move into their careers they have a head start in their understanding of engineering organizations."

“Co-op is both an investment by the company and a commitment by the student,” added Adams. “The depth of experience pays dividends in that co-op students are ready to contribute immediately at an organization after graduation.”


“I have been part of teams in which we have drawn and developed state of the art dental surgery kits that are slated to hit the market this year; I have managed drafting and conducting test plans to research the durability of implant designs; and, most importantly, I have been able to teach incoming co-ops the ins and outs of the company and guide them as they grow from a college student into true engineers.”
—Benjamin Pody, mechanical engineering student and 2nd-year co-op


Homegrown Talent

Lewis says the co-op program historically has drawn from several area universities, but he admits UAB students have one obvious advantage. “Since they are local, they already have living arrangements,” he said. “After completing the three co-op terms, students return to school to finish up and graduate.  With UAB being in town, when the opportunity was available several UAB students have stayed on and worked part-time until graduation.  The company knowledge they have has allowed them to be productive even on a part-time basis.”

While the growth of BioHorizons’ co-op program is exciting for current and future engineering students, UAB School of Engineering Dean Jeff Holmes, M.D., Ph.D., says that is just one of the reasons UAB engineers should look at the BioHorizons story with pride.

“It’s not unusual for a promising startup to spin off from university research—in this case, arising from research in the UAB Schools of Engineering and Dentistry,” said Holmes. “We often comment that these startups have the potential to revolutionize an industry. But in the case of BioHorizons, it has actually done that, and it continues to innovate and to grow. I am tremendously excited that our students are able to be a part of that continuing UAB success story.”

“At BioHorizons, we look forward to continuing our work with UAB in the future,” agreed Lewis. “We appreciate the relationship we have developed with the university that has served us well over the years.”


BioHorizons Senior Leadership

A glance at the BioHorizons team shows a number of UAB graduates among the senior leadership.

R. Steve Boggan, President and CEO

  •   M.S. in Biomedical Engineering from UAB

J. Todd Strong, Executive VP and COO

  •   M.S. in Biomedical Engineering from UAB

Mike Mills, Executive VP and CFO

  •   B.S. from UAB Collat School of Business

Andrew Baroody, VP of Sales Operations

  •   B.A. in English from UAB

Juan Jaramillo, VP of Global Business Support

  •   UAB Graduate

Fred J. Molz, IV, VP of Research and Development

  •   M.S. and Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering from UAB

Elbert Jenkins II, VP of Information Technology

  •   MEng in Information Engineering Management from UAB
  •   MBA from the UAB Collat School of Business

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