Translational Engineering in Health and Medicine: A Glimpse into the Student’s Point of View

June 28, 2017

Or Perlman, Student Editor

Students take a vital part in the effort to translate engineering-based research in medicine. It is therefore essential to understand their view of the field, the motivation in choosing a specific research path, and the factors influencing pursuing an academic vs. an industry-related career. To provide a glimpse into the students’ point of view and gain key insights, we have conducted a survey among translational engineering in medicine students.

Graduate students and postdoctoral fellows are the ‘work horse’ of scientific research. As each academic lab attempts to tackle various challenges simultaneously, and each research question must be met with a rigorous set of repetitive (and occasionally exhaustive) experiments, the contribution of non-faculty members is essential. Moreover, in the rapidly expanding and fast evolving field of biomedical and health-oriented engineering, today’s graduate student may serve as tomorrow’s field leaders. Given the deep involvement of students in our thriving field, it is imperative to understand their view of certain major aspects. Specifically, the following 5 subjects come to mind: the motivation factors in engaging medical related research, the young generation outlook on translational engineering, international collaboration, open-access publication, and the factors influencing pursuing an academic vs. an industry-related career.

To provide a glimpse into the student’s point of view, we have conducted a survey among translational engineering in medicine students. The survey was sent to all student authors of IEEE-JTEHM papers, between its establishment and April 2017. In addition, the student advisory board of IEEE-JTEHM distributed the survey to their colleagues, who are actively pursuing graduate or postgraduate education in related fields (biomedical engineering, medicine, etc.). For every multiple answer question presented, an “other” option was available, allowing a free text answer. The data was analyzed in an anonymous manner. Here are the survey results, followed by key observations and conclusions.

A total of 52 responses were obtained (64.7% men, 35.3% women). The current status of the respondents was PhD students (n=21), industry engineers who recently got their MSc or PhD degrees (n=14), active MSc students (n=9), postdoctoral fellows (n=6), an assistant professor (who was a graduate student at the time of publishing in IEEE-JTEHM), and an MD-PhD student.

The respondents’ research field was mostly medical imaging and image processing (38.5%), followed by signal processing (28.8%), medical devices (15.4%), biomechanics (5.8%), neuroscience (3.8%), drug delivery (3.8%), mobile health (1.9%), and information and communication technology (1.9%).

Figure 1. The factors motivating students to pursue translational engineering in health research.

Figure 1. The factors motivating students to pursue translational engineering in health research.

The first examined subject was the motives to pursue a translational engineering in health research (Fig. 1), where multiple answers were allowed. The most prevalent answer was “helping sick people” (75% of respondents), followed by commercialization opportunities (35%), scientific interest (27%), prestige (17%), salary (17%), and multidisciplinary nature (4%). In the next question, the motive for pursuing a specific research subject was investigated (Fig. 2A). The most common answer was “it is the research field of my supervisor” (48%), followed by “a specific need that rose from clinicians” (42%). When asked “what most bothers you in the process of medical-related research?” (Fig. 2B), the most relevant subjects were irreproducible results (37%), bureaucracy (33%), and dependence on physicians or patients (19%). When asked to grade their satisfaction of choosing to engage translational engineering in medicine, on a 1-5 scale, the average ± standard deviation score was 4.15±0.98. Using a similar scale, respondents were asked to grade the importance of converting scientific findings into a commercial product or device. The resulting score was 4.27±0.69.

Figure 2. (a) Research group motives in pursuing a specific research. (b) The elements that most disturb students in medical-related research.

Figure 2. (a) Research group motives in pursuing a specific research. (b) The elements that most disturb students in medical-related research.

An important element for knowledge dissemination, which is gaining increased availability, is open-access publication (as in this journal). The importance of open access research publication in translational medical engineering was graded by the respondents as 4.24±0.97.

Multidisciplinary collaboration has a significant weight on the success of translational efforts. When experts of diverse fields interact, a synergetic knowledge may lead to a profoundly improved “bench to bedside” procedure. In agreement with that concept, the vast majority of respondents mentioned that cross-field collaboration was involved in their research. The most common disciplines conjunction was engineering and medicine (Fig. 3). We then asked the respondents to grade on a 1-5 scale the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration in medical translational engineering. The resulting score was 4.67±0.62.

Figure 3. Interdisciplinary collaboration among respondents research.

Figure 3. Interdisciplinary collaboration among respondents research.

Finally, we aimed to obtain insights regarding the pros and cons of the academy and industry, in the student’s view. According to the results (Fig. 4A), the most prominent benefit of staying in academia is independence (87% of respondents), followed by prestige (37%), tenure (33%), comfortable working hours (6%), salary (4%), teaching (4%), interest (4%), and the ability to combine basic science with translational research (2%). With respect to the academia shortcoming (Fig. 4B), the most frequent answers were salary and limited positions (69% and 62% of respondents respectively), followed by bureaucracy (40%), stressful environment (21%), exaggerated focus on basic research (8%), funding chase (4%), and monotonic routine (2%). Ultimately, we asked the respondents of their future plans. A majority of 65% mentioned that they plan to proceed to industry (Fig. 4C).

Figure 4. Students' view of academia, industry, and future plans. (a) The advantageous of staying in academia. (b) The shortcoming of staying in academia. (c) Future plans.

Figure 4. Students’ view of academia, industry, and future plans. (a) The advantageous of staying in academia. (b) The shortcoming of staying in academia. (c) Future plans.

Several important notes should be emphasized from the obtained results. Firstly, the main motive for practicing translational engineering in health research is altruism. This is a unique trait of medical engineering (with respect to other engineering disciplines). Although the specific research subject is commonly determined by the supervisor expertise and his field of knowledge, a considerable part of research stems from a specific need that rose from clinicians (Fig. 2A). Namely, some research efforts attempt to provide direct solutions to emerging clinical challenges.

The element that most bothered students in medical related research was irreproducible results (Fig. 2B). This is not surprising, as this issue is a well-known contemporary concern, affecting many fields of research [1]. Hopefully, increased awareness and the changes in journals policy, enforcing transparency and proper experimental work [2], may reduce the extent of this phenomenon.

The open access publication route, allowing accessibility to research finding and accelerating translational processes was well evaluated by the respondents, encouraging the use of this methodology in IEEE-JTEHM. The importance of interdisciplinary collaboration was also ranked very high, and supported by the de-facto research collaboration, performed by the respondents (Fig. 3).

The importance of converting scientific findings into a commercial product or device was also highly ranked, which may have contributed to the overall satisfaction of the respondents from choosing to engage in translational engineering in medicine.

To conclude, students take a vital part in the effort to translate engineering-based research in medicine. The described survey demonstrated the high importance of the field in the student’s view, as well as the significance of international collaboration and open access publication. The shortcoming and hurdles of medical-related research were also depicted.

Acknowledgment

The author wishes to thank Prof. Atam Dhawan and Kara McArthur for their great assistance and Prof. Srini Tridandapani for his useful comments regarding survey design. Additional thanks to the IEEE-JTEHM student advisory board, for their help in distributing the survey.

References

  1. Baker, “1,500 scientists lift the lid on reproducibility,” Nature, vol. 533, pp. 452-454, 2016.
  2. M. McNutt, “Reproducibility,” Science, vol. 343, pp. 229-229, 2014.

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