Biomed Making a Splash
The pool of funding for biomedical research keeps getting deeper. Why not dive in?
As a discipline, biomedical engineering is only decades old, yet its growth and accomplishments must be measured in light-years. Bridging the gap between engineering concepts and medicine—often with amazing results—biomedical engineering is the latest example of engineers specializing to take advantage of new technologies for the benefit of society.
With advances multiplying, titillating us with the astounding possibilities within our grasp, funding opportunities abound. If you haven't already, now is the time to plunge into this growing field.
For quite some time, funding agencies have been urging engineering schools to participate in interdisciplinary research. Biomedical engineering today is one of the most attractive interdisciplinary research areas because of the juxtaposition of new technologies and the strong prospects for future research funding. BME provides the opportunity for interactions between electrical, chemical, and mechanical engineering, as well as other disciplines such as computer science, materials science, biology, physics, chemistry, radiology, surgery, neurology, cardiology, urology, and physiology, to name a few.
In working across disciplinary lines, an engineer will often find that the vocabulary used in another field requires translation into traditional engineering terminology. You may also need to immerse yourself in that field to understand it adequately and to establish meaningful working relationships with non-engineering researchers.
A number of biomedical technologies have already been developed to the point where they offer solutions for patients. For example, with advances in sensors and actuators, reliable robotic devices are becoming small enough to access parts of the body that are inaccessible to a surgeon's gloved hand.
Another example is biocompatible materials. Pace-makers, synthetic heart valves, and a host of other prosthetic devices are now made of longer-lasting materials that present less risk to the patient. Digital image processing techniques have also become more robust, and now offer the medical community the promise of improved visualization methods. And with modern database technology, genome research results can be made available to large numbers of investigators via the Internet.
A Moral Imperative?
Federal agencies that are particularly interested in biomedical engineering are the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, and NASA. The private Whitaker Foundation has also been a stalwart supporter of BME programs for many years. Overall, if you look in detail at the new wave of biomedical research funding expected over the next several years, it's more of a tsunami.
The explosion of interest in biomed has also fueled a substantial rise in demand for BME graduates. These are good reasons to offer a BME program, at least at the graduate level. However, the opportunity to blend the talents of experts from a variety of fields is a compelling goal in itself.
As engineers, we must always strive to remain relevant by being on the lookout for new ways of helping society as our technologies mature. Biomedical engineering offers opportunities for dramatic improvements in health care delivery around the world. Can we, as engineers, afford not to be part of this mission?
Douglas M. Green is chair of ASEE's Engineering Research Council
NCRR Pilot Projects Small Grants Program
NHLBI Cardiac Morpho-genesis Research Grants
Whitaker Foundation Biomedical Engineering Research Grants
Grant profiles reprinted from Directory of Research Grants 1999; Oryx Press; 1999; 1,232 pp., $135. Used with permission from Oryx Press, 4041 N. Central Ave., Suite 700, Phoenix, AZ 85012; (800) 279-6799; www.oryxpress.com .