Welcome to the 4th instalment of my series on choosing an engineering discipline. The fourth discipline is biomedical engineering! In this article, I attempt to help students answer the following questions:
- Is biomedical engineering right for me?
- Should I study biomedical engineering?
As usual, I explore some of the history of biomedical engineering, the classwork, and some of the emerging fields within the discipline.
01 | What is Biomedical Engineering?
Simply put, biomedical engineering is a field that uses math and physics to solve problems in the medical field. Biomedical engineering has actually been around for ages. In fact, a mummy was found in Thebes with a wooden prosthetic toe.
Biomedical engineering is probably one of the most multi-disciplinary engineering fields. Engineers have to work with biologists, chemists, physicists, doctors, and nurses in order to solve all of the difficult medical dilemmas.
During my research for this article, I found it difficult to locate an exact origin for biomedical engineering. As a result, I’m going to start this story by going through some of the major milestone discoveries in biomedical engineering. NOTE: biomedical engineering did not become a formal field of study until 1921. Thus, some of the earlier discoveries are not by traditional "engineers" and rather by doctors or inventors. However, their inventions still fall under the umbrella of biomedical engineering.
02 | The History of Biomedical Engineering
In 1895, a man by the name of William Roentgen made an interesting discovery. He realized that when a cathode ray tube was brought near a piece of paper, coated in barium platinocyanide, it began to glow. Even if the cathode ray tube was encased in a box, the paper would still glow! Roentgen concluded that some sort of ray must be travelling through the box and to the paper. The study of this phenomenon eventually led to the discovery of x-rays.
Willem Einthoven, a doctor and physiologist, invented the first commercial electrocardiogram (ECG) device in 1903. An ECG is a medical test designed to help medical professional's monitor the electrical activity of the heart to determine how well it’s functioning.
In 1931, Ernst Ruska (physicist) and Max Knoll (electrical engineer) created a prototype for the first electron microscope. Electron microscopes allow us to get a magnified look at the ultrastructure of a subject. An ultrastructure is the microscopic structure of a biological sample such as a cell, tissue, or organ. For example, an electron microscope can be used to analyze a biopsy sample. A biopsy is a medical exam in which cells or tissues are cut from an individual and analyzed under an electron microscope to see if any diseases are present.
World War 2
After World War 2, biomedical engineering became a more prominent field of study. Unfortunately, the war had showcased a lot of the darker contributions of engineering: guns, bombs, tanks, etc. In order to encourage engineers to use their talents to extend our lives - rather than shorten them - more universities began to offer biomedical engineering as a curriculum.
Computer Tomography and Magnetic Resonance Imaging
In the 1970's, biomedical engineering saw two major discoveries: computer tomography (CT/CAT scan) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Both discoveries were non-invasive ways for doctors to peer into our bodies. Each technology can be used to detect tumours, haemorrhages, and trauma. An advantage of the MRI, over the CAT scan, is that it uses magnetism to construct an image as opposed to x-rays which are harmful to the human body.
Positron Emission Tomography
Positron emission tomography, or the PET scan, was discovered in the 1980's. The PET scan uses radioactive tracers - such as fluorodeoxyglucose - administered through intravenous injection, in order to accurately pinpoint tumour cells.
03 | What do Biomedical Engineers Study in School?
Biomedical engineering is often studied alongside a traditional engineering path such as mechanical, electrical, or chemical. Biomedical engineering students usually pick one of many possible specializations. Here are some of the main ones that I came across during my research of the topic:
In this specialization, students learn to use & develop software that can effectively gather, organize, and analyze biological data. The goal is to use this data in order to understand DNA better, personalize medicine, and help eliminate deadly diseases. If that sounds like a monstrous task that's because... it is. In the TEDx talk below, Spencer Hall summarizes bioinformatics much more beautifully than I ever could.
Essentially, this is the application of mechanical engineering in a medical environment. Classical mechanics (statics & dynamics), solid mechanics, and fluid mechanics are used to analyze the body and create solutions such as prosthetics.
Biomaterials is the application of chemical or materials engineering in the medical field. Students study which materials are the most biocompatible and the most effective use of different materials. Drug delivery systems are an example of a time when biocompatibility is very important.
In this field, students learn about the creation of artificial tissues, organs, and extracellular matrices. An example of tissue engineering would be a 3D printed heart.
Medical Devices & Rehabilitation
Students learn to create various medical devices that fall under categories such as:
- imaging (i.e - MRI, dialysis)
- drug delivery (i.e - asthma inhaler)
- surgical (i.e - scalpel, endoscope)
- implants (i.e - pacemaker)
- rehabilitation (i.e - crutches, wheel chairs, patient lifts, etc.)
04 | What is the Future of Biomedical Engineering?
Throughout my research, I stumbled across quite a few exciting & promising fields in biomedical engineering.
The basis of all medical advancements is to help humans live longer and healthier lives. I believe that advancements in rehabilitation will be among the most important discoveries of the century. An example would be creating better prosthetic limbs that accurately function like the original limb. This would allow the patient to experience movement and touch with the prosthetic limb. Other rehabilitative devices that we might see are hearing aids that are less noticeable, or bionic eye implants to help the blind see. If you're interested in learning more about robotic limbs, check out this video:
Smart Wearable Technology
An example of a smart wearable technology is the insulin patch for diabetics. The patch monitors a patient's body for changes in glucose levels, and administers insulin accordingly. A more mainstream example of a smart wearable tech is the FitBit. A Fitbit is a watch that monitors heart rate, sleep, basal metabolic rate, and calorie expenditure to help users stay “fit”. The watch is also connected to a mobile app that keeps a record of all the data. I believe that the amount of smart technology associated with our health and fitness will only increase and improve with time.
Automation (Medical Robotics)
Automation is disrupting every single part of our lives. It helps us increase efficiency and safety. The major advantage of automation, in the medical field, is the removal of human error. Tasks can be as simple as having a robot do rounds and check on a patient's vitals to being as complex as performing surgery! Although there is still a lot of work to do in this field, the benefits are enormous (lower waiting times, quicker and safer operations, etc).
Reduction of Invasive Procedures
In the medical field, invasive procedures should be kept to an absolute minimum. Invasive procedures “invade” the space of the patient. This usually involves a physician having to physically cut you open, cut off a piece of you, or find a way to get inside of you. In order to decrease the amount of invasive procedures required, biomedical engineers are working on innovative methods of gathering data. A lot of the medical imaging tools we already have are a great step in the right direction. MRI and PET scans are powerful, yet non-invasive, tools that allow physicians to see inside a patients body. However, there is still room for a lot more improvements and innovations. One new technology that seems promising is MelaFind. It’s a device that can scan lesions on the skin for melanoma. This would reduce the amount of biopsies required. As you may remember from before, a biopsy is an exam where actual tissue is cut from the patient in order to be examined.