Bioengineering Training in Canada


One of the most diverse and challenging areas within science is the field of biomedical engineering (BME). A concise definition of bioengineering is "a discipline that advances knowledge in engineering, biology and medicine, and improves human health through cross-disciplinary activities that integrate the engineering sciences with the biomedical sciences and clinical practice." Examples of some of the disciplines under the bioengineering "umbrella" include biomechanics, biomaterials, bioinformatics, medical imaging, rehabilitation engineering, and cell and tissue engineering, to name a few.

The research carried out by members of the Uludag Biomaterials and Tissue Engineering Lab, located within the chemical and materials engineering department at the University of Alberta (U of A), also tends to be quite diverse in nature. One project focuses on modification of biocompatible polymers to enhance cell adhesion and local bone growth; another explores means to localize bone-promoting growth factors to bone; and yet another investigates the integration of immunomodulating proteins to polymers for pancreatic islet transplantation. Although these projects may initially appear to have no common threads, they are all related in that they focus on deliberately manipulating the host?s response in order to elicit a predetermined, desired biological outcome. In all of the projects, synthetic entities are combined with biological agents to engineer biomimetic, tissue-inducing agents.

Further reflecting the diversity of the field are the various backgrounds of the members of our group. Hasan Uludag earned a dual B.Sc. degree in BME and biology from Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1989, after which he completed a PhD in chemical engineering at the University of Toronto in 1993. Currently enrolled in an interdisciplinary PhD program between the Faculty of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences and BME, Sébastien Gittens joined the Uludag group after earning his B.Sc. in pharmacology from the U of A in 1999. Asif Jalil, currently working toward a B.Sc. degree in computer science while concurrently finishing his M.Sc. in BME, attended Queen?s University, earning his B.Sc. in environmental chemistry before coming to U of A in 1999. And lastly, Erin Smith joined Uludag?s group during the summer of 2000 after completing her B.Eng. in chemical and materials engineering at the Royal Military College of Canada in 2000.

Given the inherent diversity of each of the graduate student?s backgrounds, the training provided, although tailored to each of the student?s needs, is fairly universal. Academically, areas in which courses are taken include engineering, chemistry, pharmacy, molecular biology, physiology, and statistics. In addition to acquiring a basic understanding of various scientific principles in their coursework, the students learn several technical skills on state-of-the-art instruments such as automated high-pressure liquid chromatography, combinatorial synthesizers, and nuclear magnetic resonance. Furthermore, students also have the opportunity to work in a cell culture facility as well as conduct in vivo studies in animal models--research studies that are absolutely critical in order to determine the clinical viability of proposed biomedical solutions.

Ultimately, the culmination of both their academic and technical training is the ability for students to conceive, design, and finally execute research projects that are at the cutting edge of BME. When scanning any of the job listings found on reputable Web sites or in the classified sections of scientific journals, it becomes apparent that these acquired skills are truly those that employers, be it in academia or industry, are looking for. Being exposed to a multitude of disciplines also provides students increased latitude when pursuing different interests, and it allows them to adapt more easily to new areas, as well as to integrate diverse fields into a single, coherent focus. Such individuals make great scientists as well as managers.

Having appreciated the potential of BME, Canadian funding agencies have been eager to support various disciplines under the BME umbrella. The research is supported by such major agencies as the Canadian Foundation for Innovation, the Canadian Institutes for Health Research, and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council. The educational foundation of Canadian BME has been single-handedly fostered by the Whitaker Foundation, which provided special educational grants to U of A/University of Calgary, Dalhousie University, University of Toronto, and the University of Western Ontario.

Other provincial foundations, such as the Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research, routinely match federal funding in BME. Given the number of agencies, the funding opportunity for both students (in the form of scholarships) and primary investigators (in the form of operating and equipment grants) are excellent in Canada. Needless to say, the monetary funds received from each of these granting agencies have significantly helped propel forward BME research in Canada. A missing link is perhaps federal and provincial initiatives to support the commercialization activity arising from BME research. Although the quality of Canadian students in general, and especially in BME, is well recognized, it is critical to foster the entrepreneurial spirit of these students so that future biomedical technologies are initiated right here in Canada. After all, it is the visionary, well-educated and daring individuals who will pave the way for tomorrow's knowledge-based economy.

So why should graduate students and scientists consider doing BME research within Canada? Well, considering the complexity of many of the disciplines within BME, the challenges experienced seem to be perpetual in nature. Perhaps this might explain why so many of the bright minds within BME find this field so alluring. Or perhaps it could be the fact that the ceaseless advances made in the field make BME truly exciting to be in; or even the fact that many of these advances will ultimately reach the bedside and enhance patient care. Perhaps another incentive could be the fact that bioengineering, bioinformatics, and clinical research were recently found to be among the top three paying areas in the life sciences!

For more information about BME, we encourage the reader to explore the Whitaker Foundation?s Web site.

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