Bioengineering is a broad term that encompasses the principles of biology and engineering. This innovative field helps us discover new medicines, technologies, and ways of managing human health by developing tools, softwares, devices and services. Developing nations like India have a huge demand for medical services, and bioengineering is the key to addressing this demand. So what exactly is bioengineering?
Though the term was coined in 1954 by Hienz Wolf, bioengineering gained momentum around 30 years ago. It is truly interdisciplinary in that it integrates physical, chemical, mathematical, computational sciences and engineering principles to study biology, medicine, behaviour and health. This strong knowledge base helps bioengineering graduates create useful products such as artificial organs, synthetic skin, prostheses, implants and instrumentation that impact medical information systems and health management.
In India, math and biology are treated as two disparate subjects right from the high school and a student generally drops one in favour of the other. Likewise, engineering and medicine have remained two exclusive careers.
Students who possess an aptitude for life sciences but do not wish to become doctors can opt for bioengineering. They can be employed in the biomedical industry to design and construct devices such as pacemakers, defibrillators, artificial kidneys as well as smart sensors to monitor physiological parameters. They can also be involved in biomedical instrumentation and computer-based monitoring of patients in intensive care units of speciality hospitals or design new diagnostic procedures involving engineering analysis where direct parameter measurement is not feasible. Alternatively they can work in the IT industry and employ their skills for mathematical and computational modelling of physiological systems, genomics, proteomics, Next Generation Sequencing (NGS) data, microarray, and so on.
The other industry segments open for them are pharma and biotech, which need good engineers with a working knowledge of biology to develop new viable commercial applications. Bioengineering also comes into play in the field of sustainability such as waste water treatment, bio-remediation, zero-liquid discharge technologies, which deeply impact our environment. Those opting for higher education can try institutes such as University of California Berkeley, John Hopkins, Stanford, or Duke University that possess strong bioengineering departments with good funding.
With the COVID-19 pandemic raging today, the demand for bioengineering is being increasingly felt. Today, we need bioengineers to design and develop low-cost ventilators, automated ambu bags, and rapid thermal screening methods at places like airports and offices. We need cost-effective testing kits, apart from the conventional RT PCR ones being currently employed, biosensors, and masks coated with nano material that can rapidly detect the virus. We need to develop good tracking apps for effective surveillance of population over a vast area. 3D printing is another technology that has been given a fillip due to current demand for PPEs and 3D-printed circuit splitters to connect multiple patients to a ventilator.
Young bioengineers can help decipher the molecular engineering underlying this infectious disease. Remote monitoring of patients in ICU and quarantine centres using IoT is another advantage of this field. A crucial application involves data engineering which can predict the epidemiological spread of diseases using artificial intelligence (AI) and machine-learning methods. What the world needs today is experts who understand that public health care management requires knowledge of multiple domains and bioengineering plays a role in that.
The writer is head of the School of Bioengineering, Sciences & Research, MIT-ADT University, Pune.