Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Biomedical innovators sought to boost industry's growth

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CALGARY -- Curran Eggertson took two years off after completing high school because he wasn't sure what he wanted to pursue in post-secondary education. Then his grandfather suggested he try an engineering program at the University of Calgary.

"I just jumped in and pretty much never looked back," he says. After his first year of studies at the Schulich School of Engineering, he decided to go into mechanical, the stream with a specialization in biomedical engineering.

"I took the biomed option for two reasons: One is that it would definitely be a challenge; two is that it also opens up a completely new door. It just kept as many doors open for me as possible."

Last year, he went to Switzerland's Paul Scherrer Institute, one of the top nuclear research facilities in Europe, for an internship, where he was surrounded by some of the top talent in biomedical and nuclear research in the world.

When he graduates this spring, his ideal job would be working for a local biomedical company, but his main goal is to use his engineering skills for any industry, as long as it satisfies his passion for his main field.

"For me, it's not about the industry, it's about the engineering -- that's the important part," Eggertson says. "I want to apply logic and reason to make a process in this world more efficient."

It is exactly these kind of multidisciplinary students that Dr. Naweed Syed, head of the U of C's cell biology and anatomy department, says Alberta and Calgary need to attract to develop the biomedical industry in the province.

"The idea is to have an inter-disciplinary approach where we bring in these engineers who could work together with biomedical researchers, doctors and scientists to solve some of these health problems," Syed says. To compete globally, Canada needs to build a critical mass of graduates such as biomedical engineers to become an "innovation-savvy nation" that leads the way in biomedical research and development. "It's really important for us to be the innovators," he says.

Biomedical engineering is a specialization that draws on many disciplines.

Civil engineers, for example, deal with a lot of structures like joints and bones. Mechanical engineers design things like robots or related medical devices. Geomatics has biomedical applications in using laser scanning to measure the position of body parts, including 3-D laser scanning to monitor the condition of the spines of teenagers with scoliosis, instead of subjecting them to repeated X-rays.

Chemical engineering has applications for biomedical in terms of stem cell research, developing new drugs or studying blood flow in the body, while electrical and computer engineers develop medical imaging systems and new diagnostic methods.

"All of these disciplines have to come together to solve . . . a complex problem," Syed says. "The biomedical industry (is) looking for people who are trained not just in one discipline . . . but who are trained to think as interdisciplinary individuals."

The biomedical, health and drug industries are looking to universities for collaboration on research and development, so post-secondary institutions have to step up to the plate to deliver versatile graduates who can apply their engineering skills with teams of other experts to develop cutting-edge medical technologies, he adds.

"If we can create graduates locally, that really makes it exciting for industry to come to a place where there is an elite workforce of graduates . . . from biomedical engineering or an interdisciplinary area to really capture this workforce," Syed says.

For example, Syed and his team at the U of C's faculty of medicine broke new ground when they developed "brain-on-a-chip" technology drawing on several disciplines to be the first to connect brain cells to a silicon chip, a major step in controlling artificial limbs and correcting memory loss and impaired vision.

By investing in this pool of biomedical engineering talent locally, Syed hopes to build on that type of research for the benefit of the local economy and health of future generations.

"Making the educational system really nimble will allow us to bring this industry to partner (and) our motive should be to have -- through biomedical engineering -- healthy and prosperous Albertans," Syed says.

-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 12, 2012 H2

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