‘The Days When You Could Do Everything Are Gone’

Collaboration is the name of the game in research these days. Hear what some biomedical engineers have to say about how it's fuelling breakthroughs.

 |  Transcript [PDF]

Around the world, the way people approach research is changing. More than ever, researchers are tapping into each other’s strengths to solve big problems. We interviewed researchers at the UBC School of Biomedical Engineering (SBME) to learn about the exciting breakthroughs that emerge when people from diverse backgrounds work together.

“Over the last 20 years we’ve seen incredible progress in new therapeutics to treat a variety of degenerative diseases and chronic diseases, including cancer,” says UBC SBME Director Peter Zandstra.

“Collaboration is becoming increasingly important in science,” adds Carl De Boer, assistant professor at UBC SBME.

“It’s like the days when you could do everything are pretty much gone because science is now so complicated that you need to be a specialist in one area, and to do the really exciting projects you need to collaborate with other people.”

For biomedical engineers, those exciting projects are the ones that lead to strategies that are changing healthcare. Collaborations are bringing together people who understand the biology, those who can build the technology, and those who understand the clinical needs of patients.

“The world is multidisciplinary,” says Carolina Tropini, assistant professor at SBME.

“If we ask about a person’s health, the answer is going to be relying on the chemical interactions, is going to be relying on the behaviour. The way that science and engineering works nowadays is that it can’t be done in a silo. It has to be done across scales and it has to be done across institutions.”

Those collaborations take work, and it isn’t always easy for researchers to branch out into areas outside of their own expertise. But the results speak for themselves.

“Any time you get dragged out of your comfort zone, where you get dragged into a new area that you normally didn’t think about, then all the magic happens. That’s when new ideas come about,” says Kelly McNagny, professor at UBC SBME.

“There’s a lot of great work that happens in engineering, and then there’s this big barrier between engineering — all the stuff that we do, all the really great stuff that we do — and then actually getting it to clinical practice,” adds Calvin Kuo, assistant professor at UBC SBME.

Take, for example, the concept of artificial organs — inventions that could help take over a lost critical function in patients, like helping to purify the blood. An engineer might come up with a device that can perform that function, but those first prototypes might be awkward to carry or wear.

“The biologists understand that part of it,” says McNagny.

“Maybe they can help you design something that will now be more compatible and you won’t even know you’re wearing a device. Or, rather than have a device, maybe talking with an engineer you can design cells that will work like a device. And that sounds like science fiction but I think it’s less science fiction than than we’ve thought about in the past. It’s a new approach.”

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