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Dean Mark Cohen on “Carle Illinois College’s Response to Evolving Needs of Medical Education”

Dean Mark Cohen

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Key Points:

  • The Carle Illinois College of Medicine is the world’s first engineering-based medical school that fully integrates human-centered design thinking and engineering principles into the medical curriculum.
  • As technology and medical science grow, the amount of information that students need to master for competency in the four years of medical school continues to grow.
  • Dr. Cohen says, “The biggest inspiration for me to choose a career in educational leadership is to grow the impact students have on the world and our future.”

Imagine a medical school where engineering and design are not just electives, but core components weaved throughout the entire curriculum. Where students learn not only how to diagnose and treat diseases and take compassionate care of patients, but also how to invent and implement solutions for health care challenges. Where students are exposed to diverse perspectives and disciplines and collaborate with experts from different fields and sectors.

This is the vision of the Carle Illinois College of Medicine, the world’s first engineering-based medical school, founded in 2015. The college aims to produce physician-innovators who can harness the power of technology, data, and creativity to transform health care and improve lives.

In an exclusive interview with The Education Magazine, the Dean of the Carle Illinois College of Medicine at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Mark S. Cohen, MD, FSSO, FACS, he shared his insights and experiences as an educational leader, an innovator, and a surgeon. He told us how he has been helping shape the college’s unique and pioneering curriculum, how he has been engaging and empowering the students and faculty, and how he has been overcoming the challenges and seizing the opportunities in the field of medical education.

(The following Q&A has been edited for length and clarity)

The Education Magazine: The Carle Illinois College of Medicine is known as the “World’s First Engineering-Based College of Medicine.” What makes this approach to medical education unique and how does it impact student development?

Dr. Cohen: We live in a dynamic world where technology changes weekly. We need to prepare medical students to use technology and work with multidisciplinary teams to improve patient care and outcomes and solve future challenges in medicine and health.

However, most medical schools do not teach or require training in innovation, engineering design thinking, or AI/data science. These are essential skills that physicians need to have; incorporating new technologies in their practices and collaborating effectively with industry to advance innovation and patient care.

The Carle Illinois College of Medicine is a partnership between the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and the Carle Health System. It was founded in 2015 and welcomed its first cohort of medical students in 2018. It is the world’s first engineering-based medical school that fully integrates human-centered design thinking and engineering principles into the entire medical curriculum.

Carle Illinois stands out from other medical schools by embracing this integration of technology and engineering in medicine. We equip our medical students with the skills and mindset to use new technology in their practice and to solve problems in health care through engineering and design thinking. We train them to become physician-innovators: leaders who can develop transformative healthcare solutions through interdisciplinary immersion.

We also offer our students various programs in medical simulation, including applications of mixed reality (virtual and augmented reality) for clinical skills development, team training, and telemedicine. Besides clinical rotations and courses in biomedical and translational sciences, our students learn data science, AI, and 3D printing.

Our students also have numerous opportunities to innovate using our Healthmaker Lab facilities or courses like Idea Rounds, where engineers work with students to solve problems on clinical rotations. Our students also engage in research and data science projects, an innovation capstone project, and new certificate programs in AI in Medicine or Healthcare Innovation, Design, and Entrepreneurship.

The Education Magazine: How do you respond to the changing needs and expectations of students? What do you think are the most urgent issues that the current medical education system faces? As the Dean, what are your main priorities and decisions in this regard?

Dr. Cohen: The current medical education system faces ongoing challenges and opportunities, such as how to best measure the skills and competency of students, how to integrate technology into medicine to better train physicians to improve patient experiences and outcomes, and how to help students engage in and effectively lead multidisciplinary teams.

Moreover, as technology and medical science advance, students need to learn more content to achieve competency. We have addressed these challenges and requirements by developing various programs, curricula, and initiatives at Carle Illinois that deliver medical education through this novel integration of engineering and innovation.

One of my responsibilities as the Dean is to build relationships with community and industry partners and other medical schools, both nationally and internationally. Through these partnerships, we have created a new Global Consortium of Engineering and Innovation in Medicine, which will provide our students with the tools to succeed in this rapidly changing healthcare environment and the networks to collaborate and exchange new ideas and best practices.

These efforts are helping us train competent, compassionate, and diverse physician-innovators who can lead interdisciplinary teams to create transformative healthcare solutions for the future.

The Education Magazine: How did you start your educational and professional journey? What were some of the mentors or experiences that sparked your passion for education and led you to a leadership role?

Dr. Mark Cohen: I started my journey as a chemical engineer, conducting research and working in industry for a short time. Then, I decided to pursue medicine and completed my medical school, general surgery residency, and three years of basic and translational research at Washington University in St. Louis including an NIH T32 fellowship focusing on surgical oncology and endocrine surgery.

The main reason I chose a career in educational leadership was the impact students can have on the world and the future. Ever since my early residency, I have always enjoyed teaching medical students.

I joined the University of Kansas as my first faculty position and then moved to the University of Michigan and Michigan Medicine for 10 years. There, I established a new center and developed several new programs, including a new educational pathway of excellence in innovation and entrepreneurship for medical students that is still very successful.

In 2022, I became the Dean of the Carle Illinois College of Medicine, the world’s first engineering-based medical school.

I have had many mentors and role models over the years, and I think it is important to have a diverse group of mentors and colleagues to help you see new opportunities and blind spots from different perspectives and grow as a leader.

The Education Magazine: “Inspiring others” is a key theme in this issue. How do you motivate and inspire those around you with your personal leadership practices?

Dr. Mark Cohen: I think some important qualities of an educational leader are listening to students’ educational needs, innovating learning methods and curricula, and addressing current educational gaps. These qualities help improve the learners’ skills to handle not only the current challenges in the field but also the future ones that will emerge.

I meet with students regularly to understand their challenges and identify the areas where the curriculum can be improved. I also challenge our educators to constantly update our unique and innovative curriculum. In this way, we can better equip our students with the skills to become successful physician-innovators who can lead multidisciplinary teams to solve problems in health care, both today and in the future. We also look to scale our innovative solutions from small rural or underserved communities to a global impact to benefit society.

The Education Magazine: How do you achieve a healthy work-life balance? What are some of the activities that you enjoy outside of work?

Dr. Cohen: Work-life balance is incredibly important, and I learned it probably much later than I should have. Having a good team and support system is essential to finding a balance and managing your schedule.

Always make time for the things that bring you joy. This balance is also something that you need to work on constantly as it changes and evolves with your career.

I like spending time with my family, playing golf, traveling, singing in the choir, playing the trumpet, and working on various innovations and startups. I also like advising others.

The Education Magazine: What advice would you give to budding leaders who want to make a difference in the educational field?

Dr. Cohen: My advice for budding educational leaders is this: Always put the learner at the heart of your efforts, as they are the reason you are here and the source of your motivation.

Talk to them regularly and learn from them, as it will help you improve your educational leadership and guide you in creating new programs and innovations, as well as provide you with better solutions to the problems you may encounter in education.


Dean Mark Cohen Quotes

Also Read: The 10 Inspiring Education Leaders, 2024



The Educational landscape is changing dynamically. The new generation of students thus faces the daunting task to choose an institution that would guide them towards a lucrative career.

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