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"Nature's Collaborators"

From bionic legs to artificial hearts, bioengineers are helping to dramatically improve people's lives.

By Corinna Wu

Picture a day in the life of a big city hospital: A patient arrives in the emergency room suffering from chest pains and leaves with a tiny metal tube propping open the blocked artery. An amputee gets fitted with an artificial leg so she can compete in a track meet. A burn victim gets a skin graft with tissue harvested from his own cells.

None of these scenarios would have been possible without bioengineers, who design solutions to medical and biological problems. Bioengineers have to be trained in a diverse range of subjects, making the major one of the most interdisciplinary available. Undergraduates find themselves taking classes in everything from biology and medicine to mechanical and electrical engineering.

In fact, at the University of California-San Diego, bioengineering students follow one of four different tracks. The traditional track offers a strong background in mechanical engineering, preparing students for careers involving medical devices. Students taking the bioinformatics track learn how to analyze complex biological data, which requires a number of courses in computer science and mathematics. The biotechnology track emphasizes chemistry. Shirley Lee, a third-year undergraduate at UCSD explains, "It's geared more toward industry and learning about new processes for manufacturing." The fourth track is pre-med, and according to Robert Sah, UCSD professor of bioengineering and chair of undergraduate studies, many undergraduates major in bioengineering with the intent of continuing on to medical, dental, or veterinary school. More so than a biology or biochemistry major, bioengineering gives these students an understanding of the instrumentation they'll be using in the clinic.

Another area that attracts many students is biomaterials'artificial substances like plastics and ceramics that can be used safely inside the body. These biomaterials can form the basis of implants that permanently replace parts like bones and joints. Or they might act as scaffolds for growing cells and eventually break down in the body, leaving behind a new organ made of living tissue. Bioengineering "allows you to be creative, to think of new ways to implement things," says N'ha Datta, a junior at Rice University. "And melding that with the biological side of medicine is really neat."

In addition to attending classes, many bioengineering undergraduates find opportunities for research. Jamie Spangler, a junior at Johns Hopkins University, has worked in a lab since her freshman year. That research experience has solidified her desire to go to graduate school and pursue a Ph.D. What appeals to Spangler about bioengineering is that "it integrates all these different tools in order to develop medical technology that helps people."

The careers available for bioengineers run broad and deep. Graduates find themselves working at places ranging from big, international companies to tiny start-ups inventing new products. Many bioengineers work on applications, but many others focus on basic research into how normal tissue works. Even so, bioengineers are likely to see their work move from computer or animal models to real human beings, says UCSD's Sah. And because bioengineering tackles important challenges to human health, "it needs the most inquisitive and resourceful students coming into the field."

Content excerpted from ENGINEERING, GO FOR IT!
with permission from the American Society for Engineering Education.
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