Bioengineers build bridges – between the clinic and the lab, between engineering and medicine, between pioneers and practitioners. Funded by a 5-year NIH grant, the Biodesign Immersion Experience (BIE) is an 8-week summer program for UC Berkeley juniors and seniors that prepares bioengineers to bridge engineering innovation and unmet clinical needs.
“The more engineering I learn the more I love it, but I also really enjoy the direct contact with the patients and the clinical side,” said graduating senior Suzanne Chou. “When I saw that this program was literally the combination of clinical and engineering, I knew it was exactly what I was looking for.”
Conceived and led by Professor Amy Herr, the BIE puts 8-10 students through an intensive training to identify areas where bioengineering invention is needed. With stipends funded by the NIH, the students are trained in needs-finding skills, take short hands-on workshops in biomedical technology, visit over a dozen different clinical and technology sites, and do pre-visit research on the diseases treated and standards of care at each site. During visits the students have rare, up-close access to observe and question experts and practitioners.
“An essential part of successful engineering is direct engagement between engineers and the involved people that we call ‘stakeholders’,” said Herr. “In these cases: the patients, their families, caregivers, researchers, and clinicians, to name a few.”
“We got to see surgeries from next to the surgeon, while asking questions right while it’s happening,” said Chou. “I think that helps a lot with the needs-finding process. It’s through those spontaneous questions that you learn more about what the actual issue is.”
After each visit, students determine unmet needs and add them to a growing database that feeds future projects to our Senior Design Capstone Course, and also addresses a larger goal of highlighting where research in bioengineering fits in different stages of the treatment of disease.
“I think I had this mentality that everything has already been done, and I wondered what I could contribute,” said 2014 participant Derek Liu. “In this program you hear from clinicians and see some tools that are years behind in technology. I realized that this is what I can change.”
In 2014 the group visited: San Francisco General Hospital Ward 86 (the first HIV/AIDS specialist clinic in the country); San Francisco General Hospital Toxicology Laboratory; Dr. Hobart Harris, UCSF Chief of General Surgery; UCSF Liver Transplant Clinic; Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute; UC Davis Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation; Henry Plastic Molding, Inc; Dr. Michele Steffey, UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine Teaching Hospital; Stanford Life Flight; Think2Build design firm; Intuitive surgical; and Dr. John Hixson of San Francisco VA Medical Center’s Epilepsy service. This summer’s program will also range from fundamental research to clinical medicine to manufacturing to start-up ventures to interactions with patients.
Liu found his first visit, to San Francisco General Hospital Ward 86 grand rounds, to be a surprise. As ward chief Dr. Monica Gandhi asked the room what tests they would order and what treatments they would use, he noted that for the majority of questions there were a lot of differing opinions. The takeaway lesson was that medicine often doesn’t rely on hard data – and that first-hand observations are critical to identify and address gaps.
“Test results take a long time, so doctors rely on their intuition and experience,” said Liu. “They have to just give the treatment they think is needed. This was really shocking for an engineer to hear. I had expected them to agree more on the diagnosis and course of action. I just thought, wow — medical technology could use a lot of improvement.”
The summer program works closely with our Senior Capstone Design course; most participants either will be enrolled or have just finished the course. Capstone students work in teams to develop and test promising novel medical devices to solve clinical problems for physician “clients” from participating hospitals. They work through one full iteration of the engineering design process: needs analysis, setting target specifications, concept generation and selection, specification refinement, functional prototyping, testing, and redesign.
“That direct link to clinicians is a critical dimension often missing in early stage engineering training,” said Herr. “UC Berkeley BioE makes that link. Our BioE students are fearless: they prepare methodically, and then dive in. Beyond unexpected insight, capstone teams use the engineering design process as a framework to develop a functioning prototype that is tested, and those quantitative findings are reported back to the clinician for feedback, completing the loop.”
Chou worked on the HandleBar project, a ratcheting assist railing to help older people safely ascend and descend stairs in their homes. The team of Chou, Hannah Adelsberg, Celia Cheung, and Eric Katz worked for UCSF Professor Dr. Janice Schwartz, Research Director of the Jewish Home of San Francisco. Their design just took second place at the Stanford Center on Longevity Design Challenge.
“We had some faith in our design, but the fact that we won second out of 42 international submissions, and so many people came up and told us how much potential they saw in our device, that was just incredible for us,” Chou said. “We’re now working on intellectual property issues and talking to people about what we should do next.”
Other teams have also garnered recognition, including from NIH, ASME, CIRM, and UC Berkeley’s own Big Ideas program, and have received venture funding. At least one project is now in Phase II clinical trials.
Both Chou and Liu have done extensive research in faculty laboratories, but found that the BIE and capstone experiences offered something extra.
“Lab research is usually a project people are already working on, and you’re only working on a small part of the problem,” noted Liu. “It’s more focused on the details. In capstone it’s nice to focus on the problem and how engineering can directly affect people’s lives. Capstone brings together everything that we’ve learned in our studies, and ties it in to trying to solve an actual problem.”
“In most design courses you’re given the problem and are more focused on the solution. I loved that in BIE you’re really just focusing in on that first step, on being able to identify the correct problem where you can make a difference,” said Chou.
Chou summed up the big three lessons from her BIE/capstone experience: “Never be afraid to question. Never be afraid to try and fail. And everyone really does have something to offer when you’re working in a team.”
Chou and Liu participated in the Summer 2014 BIE and Fall 2014 capstone course. After graduation Suzanne will be heading a team at a small local prosthetic company making a new pediatric product, while Derek plans to work for a while then apply to medical school.
The 2015 BIE program members will Annika Carlson, Celia Cheung, Sravani Kondapavulur, Sabrina Levy, Mandy Li, Michael Manguinao, Helen Park, and Roy Park.