In 1963 there were two tracks that an electrical engineering student at Lehigh University could choose from — electronics or power. Electronics was about solid state devices such as transistors. (The Intel 4-bit 4004, now four decades old, was not to come until 1971). The “power” track was mostly about electric motors and power generation. There was no computer science program, but the university had recently acquired a GE 225 which occupied a good part of the basement floor of Packard Laboratory. Nearly every department at Lehigh began to include computer programming as part of their curricula. Some departments evolved toward strong computer orientation more rapidly than others but eventually computer science and computer engineering became formal programs of their own.
Fast forward forty years and you can see a very similar evolution occurring with regard to bioengineering. Initially “bio” was a special interest area that spread roots from the biology department into various engineering disciplines. Bioengineering has already become a structured curriculum for students interested in the intersection between engineering and biological sciences. The bioengineering faculty at Lehigh is drawn from several departments in the college of engineering and applied science and the college of arts and sciences. Bioengineering combines engineering principles with the life sciences. There are three tracks available to students. Biopharmaceutical engineering encompasses biochemistry and chemical engineering. Bioelectronics/biophotonics focuses on applications of electrical engineering and physics in bioengineering such as signal processing, biosensors, and biochips. Cell and tissue engineering straddles the fields of molecular and cell biology, materials science, mechanical and electrical engineering and encompasses biomaterials and biomechanics. Studies range from cells and tissue to organs and systems. Sound a bit different than transistors and electric motors?
I think many of us have certain things in mind when we hear the word engineering. Perhaps we think of electronic circuits, chemical interactions, structural designs, or automotive and aeronautical endeavors. The first two stories in resolve leaves a different impression. The first article was “Measuring the stiffness of a single living cell”, a story about how changes in the mechanical properties of biological cells may be a major contributing factor to the development of bone, kidney, and vascular disease. The second story was “Mending a wounded heart”, a story about how heart attacks can cause extensive scarring of the cardiac muscle tissue and how inadequate structural remodeling can be supplemented with an implanted cardiac patch composed of heart muscle cells grown on a porous polymer scaffold. A third story talks about the mechanics of proteins — how protein molecules are made from a linear chain of amino acids that fold into a 3-D globular form. The bottom line is that engineering is not what it used to be! Engineers still design bridges and circuits but now bio-engineers are working at the molecular level to improve the quality of life by by redesigning parts of the human being and designing new components to take the place of those in our body that may have worn out.
The exciting part of all this is that engineering students with “bio” in their pedigree have a much broadened career potential including healthcare, biomedical, pharmaceutical, biomaterials, and medicine. A new professional master’s degree program in healthcare systems engineering (HSE) in the Department of Industrial & Systems Engineering (ISE) designed to prepare graduate students for engineering and management careers in healthcare and health related products and services companies. The increasing complexity of delivering health care with high quality and positive patient outcomes requires professionals who are trained to think in terms of systems. The Institute of Medicine and the National Academy of Engineering have urged the healthcare field to embrace systems engineering as a way to deliver safe, effective, timely, patient-centered, and efficient.
Lehigh’s Healthcare Systems Engineering program has developed relationships with Mayo Clinic, Lehigh Valley Health Network, Geisinger Health System, Saint Luke’s Health System, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, Merck, and Cigna Healthcare. There are already 18 graduate students enrolled in the new HSE program and many more expressing interest.
Even more exciting is the possibility for those of us who started out back in the days of the transistors and motors and now have aging bodies that some day we will benefit from bio-engineered “components”. The implantable pacemaker was just the beginning. Bioengineering graduates will be developing pacemakers for the brain, cochlear implants for hearing deficiencies, artificial cartilage for our knees, devices to enable the blind to see, and cures for today’s incurable diseases. At some point a nanotechnology “cocktail” will bring nanobots to our internal systems to replace faulty cells with newly engineered ones. Just like computers have become ubiquitous, it is clear that bio-everything is on the horizon. Bioethics will become a larger concern but it is clear that the trend toward The Singularity is underway.