Biomedical engineers cannot work in a vacuum. The field encompasses a broad array of disciplines, each requiring its own blend of expertise. It is also deeply influenced by education, the needs of industry and society at large.
There is an obvious need to get more kids interested in engineering from an early age, allowing them to see the possibilities offered by the profession. IEEE EMBS has a responsibility as a society to make sure we have students who are prepared to make a difference in healthcare and medicine.
Making Bioengineering Cool
Through a grant awarded by the society, the Southern California chapter of EMBS developed an outreach program for middle school students to discuss the possibilities offered by biomedical engineering, engineering and math. Almost 5,000 7th graders were exposed to the program, which was designed to fit within the State’s existing curriculum in order to encourage adoption by teachers and principals.
To make engineering fun and “cool”, a portable EKG device was connected to a laptop and projected for a whole class. Students volunteered to be hooked to the device to see their own heart at work. They were also hooked to an electromyogram (EMG) and handed more and more books to hold as they watched the response of their muscles.
The students were then asked to consider who developed the EKG and EMG devices, why these inventors are important and how the students could, themselves, make a difference. The program was presented by local undergraduate bioengineering students, who played the roles of the inventors—complete with Russian, Scottish and US accents.
Exposing Kids to Engineering
The University of Minnesota regularly conducts tours for local high school students to encourage them to think about engineering. Students that were once part of these tours are now research volunteers in the university’s labs. And several of the school’s grad students have younger siblings who work in the labs.
Oftentimes, the exposure to medicine leads biomedical engineering students to pursue a career in medicine. Likewise, med students are sometimes drawn to the engineering side of medicine. In either case, society benefits from their curiosity and passion.
Education must continually adapt to the current and changing needs of industry and clinical institutions. At the undergraduate and graduate level, curricula, concentrations and, indeed, whole departments are being re-imagined to keep pace with advancements in medicine and technology.
Industry is driven by opportunities to fulfill a need. Given that medicine has already conquered the “easy” solutions, the mysteries that remain are far more challenging. So the field of biomedical engineering has become crucial, presenting almost limitless opportunities to fill needs and make a difference.
Industry is not working in a vacuum. It takes its cues from society at large and looks to academia, both for basic research and future hires.
Designing for the Real World
Local companies have teamed with the University of Minnesota, challenging students at both the undergraduate and graduate level with assignments to design and develop new products on their behalf. Teams of engineering students work together with MBAs and a faculty advisor to design a product, secure a patent, create a fully working prototype and create a complete business plan. The companies fund the program, are given full rights to the results and generally end up hiring someone from the team.
The medical device industry can encompass anything from a pre-filled syringe to an ultrasound machine to an implantable fusion pump for insulin. All of these items are engineered for particular features and usability profiles. Bioengineers are involved in the development of biomechanical and electromechanical equipment, sophisticated software and even manufacturing processes for biologics.
At EMBS, when we refer to “society”, we are thinking of four key audiences: society’s citizens, whose health is paramount; the physicians who care for them; private insurers who pay for much of their care and governments that pay for care, adopt technical standards and fund academic and other research institutions.
Part of what we do as a society is communicate to the public and policy makers to explain complex scientific issues in lay terms. As an international organization, our ability to lobby for public health policies is limited. IEEE-USA’s Medical Technology Policy Committee (MTPC) issues policy statements on bills in Congress and generates policy papers.
We encourage physicians to participate in EMBS as active members, helping to direct the activities of researchers in order to develop diagnostic and therapeutic systems that will meet the needs that clinicians see firsthand.
When it comes to aiding medicine, engineers have never been more crucial. But we can’t do it alone. Medicine is now inundated with masses of data and diseases that are increasingly difficult to diagnose and treat. It will take the combined forces of academia, clinicians, government and industry to bring to fruition truly revolutionary medical advancements, better and more timely diagnosis and better outcomes.