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Balancing Engineering and Biology in Bioengineering

For most of my career, I have heard rumors that engineering comprises a set of silos, with each discipline narrowly defined by a strict set of its own coursework and practices. Indeed, this has been the popular image of engineering for perhaps half a century. Why I believed this, I do not know, as I was one of six bioengineering faculty in the Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) Department at the University of Illinois, where bioengineering involvement stretches back to 1950 and which also employed physicists, mathematicians, computer scientists, chemists, musicians, and, of course, a large number of excellent electrical engineers.

From my vantage point, engineers comprise the most remarkable of the university disciplines in our ability to adapt to many new opportunities. It is in our blood: we are driven by both the science and the application of engineering, and we adapt quickly to interesting and profitable areas of investigation and development. Certainly, the adoption of computer technology was so rapid and thorough that both outsiders and insiders were unaware that they had achieved one of the most significant transformations of academia and industry that the world has ever seen.

The adaptation to the biomedical and biomolecular revolution of the late 20th and early 21st centuries is almost as remarkable. A great many have noted the extraordinary growth in the number of BME departments of colleges and universities in the 1990s (from roughly 25 to 100 in the United States in the space of a decade) and the ever-increasing student interest in the field. This emphasis has led us to overlook the fact that, by my guess, more than half of all engineering departments now have significant BME research and/or coursework. For instance, at the University of Florida, where I work, there is significant BME and biological engineering work in the Departments of Materials Science and Engineering, ECE, Computer and Information Science and Engineering, Chemical Engineering, Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, Industrial Engineering, Agricultural and Biological Engineering, and in the Engineering School of Sustainable Infrastructure and Environment, not to mention my own Department of BME. Every department has bioengineering! The widespread transformation of engineering to include a wide portfolio of biomedical applications is truly remarkable.

Ever-Expanding Opportunities for the Well-Trained Engineer in BME

Industry has clearly seen great opportunities—starting with engineering new biomedical diagnostics and therapeutics, sensors, imaging, orthopedics, etc.—the list is very long. Most of these opportunities require both strong traditional engineering disciplinary knowledge and a solid understanding of physiology and molecular biology—knowledge most easily gained with a traditional engineering major and a biomolecular minor, whether formally as coursework or practically on the job.

My intuition is that, despite this significant shift by traditional engineering departments to biomedical applications, much more could have been and certainly soon will be done. For instance, enrollments in ECE, which fell by roughly 50% in the last two decades, would have increased if ECE and computer science departments had understood that they were the stepping stone to more BME jobs than BME departments, especially in health informatics (see [1]). There have been clear winners where the strength of engineering has permeated, if not dominated, medical departments, especially in medical imaging and informatics, which attract many electrical engineers.

Biologicification of BME

College and university BME departments in the United States have trended substantially to research areas emphasizing the biological and chemical side of bioengineering, e.g., tissue engineering, biomaterials, cellular biomechanics, immunoengineering, pharmaceutics, and biotechnology/bioreactors. These are very exciting areas of scientific research—who wouldn’t want to be the creator of an artificial pancreas or cartilage or other organ? The U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding is abundant, mostly from agencies that see these developments as extensions of their historic investment toward the nation’s medical future. This has led many, if not most, BME engineering departments to hire at least some faculty whose training and research is dominantly life science and not engineering application oriented. Certainly, the scope and potential of the biomolecular revolution are breathtaking and inviting to engineers, arguing robustly for much greater involvement of the life sciences in engineering [2].

However, the industrial development in these areas has been modest to date, and the BME job market, although growing quickly percentage-wise, is still small [3]. Certainly, there is a huge biotechnology industry that has been well-served by the nation’s life science educational and research system of the nation, but enhanced in only a limited way so far by the growth in BME. Unfortunately, the job market for life scientists is weak at all levels—and, by extension, the life-science-oriented end of the BME student spectrum must work harder for a job.

There is a clear asymmetry in that academic biology and medicine departments have not hired many engineers and have embraced physical and mathematical sciences in only limited proportion while preferring to pursue molecular bioscience and clinical applications even more assiduously. This has come at a time when academic engineering has overwhelmingly embraced interdisciplinary biomedical research and teaching, especially in BME, of course, but also in most of the other engineering departments.

Why is there an “S” in STEM?

Recently, there have been articles asking “Why is there an ‘S’ in STEM?” [4], which report that at the bachelor’s degree level, biology majors earn less (US$25,000) than English majors (US$32,000) in sample job markets. Chemistry majors don’t do much better. The winners are the “TE” majors (engineering, computer science: US$50,000), with the “M” majors (math) in between. At the associate’s degree level, the biology and chemistry grads earn relatively low wages, with the TE earning double. This trend is present for life science Ph.D.s, whose serious underemployment is raising some alarms, as reported in a recent paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America [5], which builds on a previous NIH report [6].

The clear concern is that if a student’s BME curriculum has insufficient engineering depth or a student’s Ph.D. thesis is principally biological, then his or her job prospects—from associate’s to bachelor’s to Ph.D. degrees—will be closer to those of their life science colleagues than to the strong prospects of the traditional engineers.

Seamless Integration of Opportunity in Engineering and BME

One of the hallmarks of academic engineering is the tremendous congruence between faculty research topics and jobs for their students, a consequence of applied research in multiple technologies of great economic immediacy and strength. That job market is “seamlessly integrated,” with substantial ebb and flow of people across boundaries between research and development, design and field and sales engineering, technician and engineer. No other field—including the life sciences—has these properties. Coming immediately to mind are the barriers restricting how one becomes a doctor or a nurse—and the long-term weak job market for biologists at the bachelor’s degree level.

Only part of the portfolio of most BME departments meets these criteria of seamless integration and congruence of research and employment. I think it is important for academic BME to have the appropriate size and scope to maintain the employability that characterizes the traditional engineering disciplines, for this is the assumption of entering students of all ages, the parents of the undergraduates, and the increasing number of cash-paying master’s students. A question that must be asked is whether BME programs are growing too rapidly and are becoming too diffuse in scope to be optimally effective in educating students for the job market.

In contrast, as the traditional engineering majors and departments—electrical engineering, computer science, mechanical engineering, chemical engineering, and industrial engineering—incorporate more life science content and research, they are finding themselves in greater leadership roles within the BME field. It may be that the preponderance of BME in academia will shift back to the traditional departments because they are “seamlessly integrated” and because of the ability of all engineers to adapt dynamically to new opportunities.

A Great Future for IEEE, EMBS, and ECE in BME

I argue that it was only a myth that engineers were in silos—we have both adjusted to and driven the biomedical and biomolecular revolutions that the world is seeing. Correspondingly, the IEEE and the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society (EMBS) are squarely in the middle of the BME revolution. We are seeing outstanding professional contributions by EMBS members [7] as well as a rapidly growing BME effort in other IEEE Societies, leading to the establishment of the IEEE Life Science Technical Community [8]. It is indeed a spectacular time to be an electrical engineer working in BME.

References

  1. B. Wheeler, “The nature of engineering professions and bioengineering,” IEEE Pulse, vol. 5, no. 3, p. 6, May/June 2014.
  2. B. C. Wheeler, “It’s a great time to be a biomedical engineer,” IEEE Pulse, vol. 4, no. 1, p. 6, Jan./Feb. 2013.
  3. Best jobs in America. [Online].
  4. M. Schneider. (2013). Why the S in STEM is overrated. The Atlantic.
  5. B. Alberts, M. W. Kirschner, S. Tilghman, and H. Varmus. Rescuing US biomedical research from its systemic flaws. Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. United States Amer.
  6. U.S. National Institutes of Health, “Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group Report,” Bethesda, MD, 2012.
  7. B. C. Wheeler, “EMBS at half a century: IEEE’s original life science and biomedical engineering initiative grows stronger every year,” IEEE Pulse, vol. 5, no. 1, pp. 6, 13, Jan./Feb. 2014.
  8. D. L. Hudson. (Aug. 2014). IEEE and the life sciences—What’s the connection?