Thursday, April 7, 2011

Biomedical Engineering: more than just Frankenfruit

How can a debate of the relative strengths between Chewbacca and Yoda help students learn?

Ask David Chen, faculty member at the University of Virginia Department of Biomedical Engineering (BME). David was our third guest speaker for the year and brought stories, descriptions of current research, and some fun to our class. He heads UVa's partnership with the Coulter Foundation to support translational research (making scientific discoveries and bringing them into real-world situations). As I've mentioned before, lack of knowledge of current careers and research in engineering is often a barrier to choosing to study engineering. In his engaging way, David helped take down a few more barriers for this group of students.

David started off by dividing class into two teams. Each team had to pick and defend a superhero with uncommon strength, skill or special powers. One team picked Yoda, the other, a hundred Chewbaccas. Who would win if they fought? Why? What are some traits that are biologically different? Could you combine genes to make a Yobacca, or Chewyoda? Would it be right to do so? After the laughter died down from picturing Yoda using the force on a giant circle of Wookies (I know they're on the same side, silly) David drew parallels between the discussion and modern biomedical engineering.

He described a field that bridges medicine, biology, materials science and engineering, a field where you quite possibly could take desirable properties of one element and combine them with another.

A BME might listen to a surgeon describing a need for a surgical tool. A BME could understand the problem, then apply his or her knowledge of biology and design to create and test a new medical technology.

BME's also grow skin cells and tissue for grafts, study ways to improve prosthetics, or generate strains of crops that are drought resistant or have special properties (example: frankenfruit).

Biomedical engineering is filled with ethical debates on stem cell use, genetically modified foods and cloning. David helpfully told us that the embryonic stem cell debate is lessening because there are alternate, ethically preferable sources of stem cells coming into use from adults or umbilical cord blood.

Bio-medical engineering is an excellent example of a cross-disciplinary career that is changing and developing quickly due to its young age. Thanks again to David Chen.

Check out these links for further exploration.

Homepage of the University of Virginia Biomedical Engineering Department. There are easy to find tabs for people, research, news, and contact information. Look at what they are studying in tissues, imaging or cardiovascular engineering.

Frequently Asked Questions about biomedical engineering from the Biomedical Engineering Society. This page has a nice summary of specialty areas within Biomedical Engineering including bioinstrumentation, biomaterials, biomechanics, rehabilitation engineering, medical imaging and systems physiology.

If the conversations about ethics in biomedical engineering interested you, you might want to browse the National Society of Professional Engineer's Code of Ethics. Just as doctors must "first, do no harm", professional engineers must "hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public.

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