What does a Biomedical Engineer do?

In 2017, my internship experience in France was a Eureka moment for me. I realized that my interest and competence lies in biomechanics and biomaterials. Hence, I would like to pursue a Master’s in Biomedical Engineering after completing my mechanical engineering degree. So, here I am, 3 years later, writing this blog post from Trinity College campus in Ireland.

Growing up in a suburb in India where high-speed mobile internet was a distant dream until 2015, finding the right career advice was very difficult. Even before I started my postgraduate Master’s in Europe, I had very little understanding of the job prospects, the skills I need to develop, and several other areas. So, here I am writing down my perspective for the next generation of budding biomedical engineers or high schoolers keen to pursue biomedical engineering. Be prepared to listen to some harsh realities as well.

Scope of Biomedical Engineering

Biomedical Engineering is an interdisciplinary field. Several aspects of mechanical engineering, chemical engineering, materials science, cell biology, polymer chemistry, computer science, biophysics, biochemistry, and electrical engineering come into play while developing medical devices or therapeutics.

Therefore, one can pursue biomedical engineering in an undergraduate or specialize in a science or engineering discipline and later pursue Biomedical Engineering as a postgraduate. These are two typical ways to make a career in Biomedical Engineering.

Although several universities have a biomedical engineering undergraduate programme, some reputed universities like RWTH Aachen, KU Leuven and the University of Waterloo offer it only at the Master’s level.

What does a Biomedical Engineer do?

Usually, biomedical engineers can end up in 4 sectors:

  1. MedTech industries: Typical job roles include quality engineer, medical device assurance engineer, validation engineer, manufacturing engineer, product design engineer, R&D engineer.
  2. Biopharma industries: Typical job roles include quality control analyst (QC Analyst), upstream and downstream process engineer, maintenance engineer, Safety Engineer, and R&D.
  3. Academia: Ph.D., postdoctorate, research scientist and professor
  4. Hospitals: Clinical engineer, Hospital management, Maintenance Engineer

A biomedical engineer with a strong background in cell culture and biochemistry is more suitable for an R&D engineer in a biopharma company. On the other hand, a biomedical engineer with a strong foundation in mechanical engineering or electrical engineering is suitable for a ‘manufacturing engineer’ position in a MedTech company.

Thus, the job role of a biomedical engineer not depends on the sector where he is based but also on the specialization within the track.

Job Roles in Biomedical Engineering by sector

1. MedTech Sector

1.1. Manufacturing Engineer

Manufacturing engineers are responsible for floor management and the manufacturing of medical products like prosthetics, stents, or as simple as vials and tissue culture flasks.

1.2. Quality Engineer

Quality engineers ensure that manufactured medical devices meet certain standards and specifications. There are certain standards like ISO 14971 which are followed by quality engineers to verify and validate the product. In cases of non-conformance with the standards, they carry out root cause analysis of the problem and implement corrective and preventive actions (CAPA).

1.3. Computer Engineer

Computer engineering is a broad field in itself. A computer engineer can specialize in data science, Artificial Intelligence (AI), software engineering, web development, or Bioinformatics.

A biomedical software engineer focuses on developing software for human-medical device interaction, record maintenance, or as simple as developing an Android app that aims at helping patients.

A biomedical data scientist uses statistical tools and machine learning algorithms to derive insights from medical data. For example, a biomedical data scientist can work on interpreting the ECG signals generated by a fitness wearable. He develops an algorithm that interprets the ECG data in real-time and informs the user about his health and wellness.

To know more about the data analytics involved with wearables, read the following peer-reviewed article.

Read: Windows into human health through wearable data analytics

1.4. R&D Engineer/Product Design Engineer

So, what does a Biomedical Engineer working in the R&D division of a MedTech company do?

A biomedical R&D engineer in a MedTech company is involved in new product introduction (NPI) and is involved in the early stages of a product life cycle. He is responsible for analyzing the user-needs, the design inputs and then develops a product following project management frameworks. Usually, agile and lean project management principles are used in the medical device industry.

A mechanical product design engineer has to be proficient in CAD software (SolidWorks, CREO, CATIA), tolerance stack-up analysis, ISO 13485, ISO 14971 regulatory guidelines for design controls, Finite Element Analysis (FEA), statistical analysis (Minitab, R, SAS) and project management tools (JIRA, MS Project).

There are several different skills and competencies demanded from a product engineer which include but are not limited to rapid prototyping (3D printing, foam casting), electronic sensor design, Design for Manufacturing (DFM), and LabVIEW. A medical product design engineer is a very demanding job indeed.

How does an R&D position in an industry different from that in academia?

Well, I have already discussed the skills needed to be a R&D engineer in the industry. Several of these skills like project management frameworks (Lean, Agile), ISO 13485 and other regulations, tolerance analysis and DFM are not required at the university level.

Design and development at the university level focus more or less on the feasibility of the products and proof-of-concept of a product. So, although academia prepares you for the real world, you have to go the extra mile yourself to get the right skills to be a part of the industry.

4. Hospitals and other Healthcare Facilities

4.1. Clinical Engineer/Maintenance Engineer

A clinical engineer supports patient care by implementing biomedical engineering and managerial skills in a hospital setting. He is responsible for the maintenance of equipment like a ventilator or a dialysis machine used for patient care in hospitals and mends them in case of a breakdown.

Clinical engineers can also be tech consultants for government regulators and take part in hospital inspections and audits. They can also be responsible for the standard of the medical devices supplied in the hospitals. Although clinical engineers are not into research and development of medical devices, they act as a useful link between the medical device industry and the hospital setting and point-of-care.

What are the specializations within Biomedical Engineering?

One can specialize in bioinstrumentation, tissue engineering, and regenerative medicine, biomaterials, biomechanics, mechanobiology, surgical robotics, medical device development, and medical imaging.

1. Bioinstrumentation

Be it the single electrode ECG sensor in Apple Watch to monitor your heartbeat or the glucose monitoring device used by diabetic patients, bioinstrumentation has become an integral part of our everyday lives now.

Bioinstrumentation specialization of Biomedical Engineering aims at developing diagnostic devices, wearables and other instruments for measuring physiological conditions and diagnose diseases. The specialization in ‘bioinstrumentation‘ focuses on sensor development, sensor calibration, signal processing, and microcontroller programming.

2. Biomaterials

What does a biomedical engineer do? Hip implants
Hip implants

Materials that find use in medical devices or implants are classified as biomaterials. These sources of biomaterials can be either from nature (natural polymers like collagen, agarose) or synthetically made in a laboratory (shape memory alloys, ceramics, synthetic polymers).

Polymers like PCL and PLA have been used recently for developing the 3D printed medical devices. 3D printed masks, oxygen splitters, heart valves, and ventilators were used in the COVID-19 pandemic.

I am really passionate about 3D printing and while working at Trinity College Dublin, I developed some 3D printed medical devices which you may find cool. Do check them out.

Read: 3D Printed Medical Products

Ceramics and composites are also biomaterials used in implants such as dental, knee, and hip implants. Biomaterial research also delves into developing nanoscale hydrogels or microgels for effective drug delivery.

3. Biomechanics

According to the American Society of Biomechanics “biomechanics is an interplay between mechanics and biological systems”.

Therefore, biomechanics involves analyzing the motion of human body parts such as the gait cycle, studying mechanisms of bone fractures, working of muscles, bones, tendons, and ligaments, mechanics of blood circulation, etc.

Read: 10 Exoskeletons to Suit Up

There are several sub-categories within biomechanics such as:

I. Rehabilitation Engineering

This branch of engineering focuses on the use of mechatronics devices and robotic tools to aid in the rehabilitation of patients such as the mobility of patients suffering from movement disorders like paraplegia or stroke. Engineers specializing in this field design and develop wearable orthotics like exoskeletons to aid in mobility, prosthetics for amputees, and other artificial organs and implants like bionic eyes, cochlear implants and artificial kidney.

With the advent of AI and virtual reality, computer engineers have also been a part of rehabilitation engineering. In the last decade, several virtual reality games for exercise simulation have cropped up to motivate patients exercise at home while a physiotherapist monitors them remotely.

II. Human factors and ergonomic product design

Medical device giants like Medtronic and Stryker hire ‘Human Factor Engineers’ for medical device validation and quality assurance purposes. These engineers validate the usability of the devices under various scenarios and establish the risk associated with their usage.

III. Injury Biomechanics

Developing tools and techniques for recovery of patients with blast injury, sports injury or a generic injury.

IV. Sports Biomechanics

It’s quite intuitive. Sports biomechanics makes use of various tools and technology to improve the performance of sportspersons.

5. Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine

Organ-on-a-chip microfluidics
Organ-on-a-chip, a microfluidics device

Hmm.. That’s my field. Tissue Engineering is an emerging field of biomedical engineering which is slowly making it into the industry. As of 2020, most of the research has been based in academia and there are few spin-offs and startups working to bring the Tissue Engineered products into the market.

As of 2020, tissue-engineered skins are being used for testing cosmetics and several pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer as using organ-on-a-chip devices based on microfluidics technology, to test drugs.

SurajPanigrahi

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