Biomedical Engineering Students Challenged to Innovate

It was one of those inspirational talks akin to the famous TED Talks, with ideas worth spreading and implementing. The man behind the mic was Prof. Charles Ibingira – the Principal Makerere University College of Health Sciences, his listeners were undergraduate students of Biomedical Engineering, and Physiology Lecture Theatre was the venue.

“I appreciate your resilience; being on a new programme in the university comes with challenges, but it’s only when you face the challenges and turn them into opportunities that you will thrive and achieve your vision and mission,” he said.   

The “new programme” Prof. Ibingira was talking about is Bachelor of Science in Biomedical Engineering, a five-year course that was introduced at Makerere University five years ago.  The programme demands the highest level of big thinking and creativity because it is designed to prepare students to drive the biomedical industry by designing devices to diagnose and treat diseases, engineer tissues to repair wounds, develop cutting-edge genetic treatments, or create computer programs to understand how the human body works. It is also tailored to produce entrepreneurship-oriented graduates who are capable of propping up new companies, out of the prototypes that they will have developed at the undergraduate level.

So passionate is Prof. Ibingira about this programme that he will leave no stone unturned to make it deeply entrenched in the country, and produce innovative graduates that will revolutionize service delivery in the country. The Principal’s presentation explored the power of: i) ICTs, ii) Big data, iii) Artificial intelligence, iv) Healthcare solutions of the future, and how students can maximize them to leave an indelible mark on their profession.

Information and Communications Technology (ICT) 

The use of ICT has changed the world and will continue doing so for many years, said the Principal, and urged students to take advantage of this indispensible resource if they want to compete with the rest of the world in the Biomedical Engineering field. Literally hundreds of apps are developed everyday globally, and as smart phones penetration spreads to far-flung parts of the country, Biomedical Engineering students must think hard and big on how they can maximize new technologies to defeat the lagging systems in our healthcare. Ugandan hospitals still use a manual approach in recording data which slows things down and increases workload.

“You can change that by designing a management and operating system that will bring order and efficiency into our healthcare centres,” the Principal advised. “You just have to motivate yourself and find solutions to make life simple, and earn a lot of money.”

He urged students to go beyond textbook knowledge; take learning beyond the lecture room by visiting hospitals and health centres for practical lessons about the various equipment used in their laboratories.  A few students have interacted with some equipment like X-rays and Ultrasound machines but the majority admitted they are not familiar with most devises used in health centres. Since the course also prepares students to design, fix and maintain healthcare tools, the Principal asked students to network with suppliers of medical equipment from the Joint Medical Store and Critical Care Solutions among others, to learn how stuff works and become familiar with the challenges and opportunities in the industry.

Big Data

The growing industry of data science is influencing the way things are done. And with the collection of data becoming easier day and day thanks to internet and search tools like Google, it becomes very important for Biomedical Engineering specialists to take centre stage to help in the analysis of the collected data to predict trends in global health and recommend relevant adaptations.

We are talking about “Big Data analytics” which is all about examining voluminous data to unearth hidden patterns, correlations and other insights. Advances in technology have made it easier to analyze data and get value out it as would immensely benefit the medical profession. Big data analytics is so essential because it’s an antidote to the less efficient traditional way of collecting and analyzing data.  

Big data links well with bioinformatics in combining computer science, mathematics and engineering to analyze and interpret biological data. Through this analysis and interpretation, scientists and practitioners of medicine are given options on how to counter the challenges facing the profession. It is obvious that the byproducts of the Biomedical Engineering program are the ones who are going to benefit most because, as Prof. Ibingira rightly said, “Big data is going to dominate the world of health for many years.”

Artificial Intelligence

With advanced technology, many institutions and corporations are turning to artificial intelligence to ease workflow. This is why the Principal urged Biomedical Engineering students to take keen interest in Artificial Intelligence and see how they can apply it to help the profession improve.

According to Wikipedia, Artificial Intelligence (AI) is intelligence demonstrated by machines, in contrast to the natural intelligence (NI) displayed by humans and other animal... Colloquially, the term artificial intelligence is applied when a machine mimics cognitive functions that humans associate with other human minds, such as learning and problem solving.”

By this definition alone, there is so much that Biomedical Engineering students can do to change the way things are done in the medical and healthcare world. Just like is in robotics they can, for example, create prototypes that can be used to draw blood samples from or administer drugs to patients with deadly infectious diseases to help doctors not get the virus. This calls for advanced technology, of course, but nothing can stop anyone determined to create and innovate. 

Healthcare Solutions of the Future

The Principal asked students to be part of the cutting-edge innovations such as 3D diagnostics to change their profession. “You have to think more and more,” he said. “We need solutions that are more convenient in the world.” With the rising cases of murder in Uganda, the Principal challenged students to develop a mobile app that can, for instance, ease the work of forensic pathologists.

He also challenged students to give studious and assiduous attention to their studies lest they enter the field only to realize that they wasted their five years of undergraduate training. He urged them to form innovation groups and brainstorm on how they can create healthcare solutions for the future. He commended the Makerere University Biomedical Engineering Students Association (MUBESA) leaders for coming up with the Freshman’s Challenge in which new students are given an opportunity to explore a given healthcare challenge and develop solutions. The Principal urged MUBESA to also come up with the Finalists’ Challenge to stimulate final year students to think outside the box and create a program or innovation that would mark a paradigm shift in the country’s health sector.

The Principal said time is imminent when students will be assessed based on skills application and implementation of their ideas. Already, the College is trying to create an incubation lab, (in the strategic plan for the next 10 years) through which students will continue to apply themselves because practicality is the way to go in the modern world. 

“The College is determined to help students with novel programs or ideas with potential for transforming Health Sciences,” the Principal said, urging students to remain intellectually stimulated in order to make scientific innovations that will change the world. For them it will be a legacy that will stand the test of time.

Summary of Success Tips from the Principal

  • Many Ugandans are lackluster in the way they do their things. Change that. Do things the right way. Do it better. Be the best you can be. Go the extra mile.
  • Don’t create excuses for failure to do your work. Don’t procrastinate. We lose a lot of wealth because of misuse of time. Maximize your time.  
  • Always engage your creative faculties; anticipate problems and create solutions. Looking at problems and coming up with solutions is what makes some successful. You will transform your field with solutions.
  •  Do research which will provide solutions that will solve people’s problems.
  • Think outside the box. Invoke and stretch your power of imagination.  
  • Form clusters and brainstorm on how you can create solutions.