Turning students into innovators

May 01, 2003, vol. 27, no. 1
By Marianne Meadahl

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A special look at health research

As one of Canada's top-ranked comprehensive universities, SFU has no medical school. Yet 130 faculty and their students, representing departments ranging from gerontology to molecular biology and biochemistry, are involved in ground-breaking medical and health-related research. “We want to depart from the conventional clinical models of health research and education,”says President Michael Stevenson. “By drawing on our interdisciplinary strengths, there are very real opportunities in areas such as health promotion and population health to explore.” These stories showcase SFU's prowess in the medical and health research field.

Engineering student Aaron Ridinger shows off a wireless biological signal monitor, which in the future could enable those with health risks to be monitored from home. The device is an example of innovations anticipated from students of a new biomedical engineering program.

A new biomedical engineering program set to begin later this year at SFU will do more than open doors to a new field. Engineering professor Andrew Rawicz predicts it will turn students into innovators of medical equipment targeting the changing needs of healthcare delivery.

The program is expected to be the first of its kind in Canada to be offered at the undergraduate level. It is expected to attract more female students to the school of engineering science and will provide a broad range of hands-on opportunities for students to develop their ideas, resulting in new and improved equipment for the biomedical industry.

Rawicz says the program, pending senate approval, is the result of nearly a decade of work to develop a specialized option for engineering students looking to apply their talents in the field.

“In the medical market, such devices are subject to stringent testing and approval,” says Rawicz, who has created and marketed several of his own medical devices through his company, Applied Medical Devices Inc. The veteran professor is known for constantly challenging his students to follow through on their ideas by developing and testing new products.

“These devices are among the most challenging to design. Yet there is a growing interest on the part of students, and a growing need to meet the demand.”

The multidisciplinary program is the result of efforts between the schools of engineering, kinesiology and the gerontology research centre. Rawicz says support from all sides, including Jim Morrison and John Dickinson in kinesiology, has resulted in a wide range of course offerings and potential research directions. New focuses will include such areas as photonics and optical engineering.

Rawicz has already been flooded with inquiries from high school students and anticipates beginning the program with 30 undergraduate and 30 graduate students. Job prospects are high. Some 300 B.C. companies produce medical devices, and the number is growing.

Fourth-year engineering student Andrew Pruszynski is eyeing the graduate component. Pruszynski and his colleagues recently designed a wireless biological signal monitor. The device could eventually be used to enable those with health risks to be monitored from home, minimizing their need for hospitalization. Students are refining their work and, with enthusiastic prompting from Rawicz, hope to pursue their product's development. “With a growing aging population it's an emerging field with a lot of work to be done,” says Pruszynski.

“We are not only recognizing, but answering, this need,” Rawicz adds. “Our students have a high social sensitivity. They also respond when intellectually challenged, and even though it can be risky in the business world, they are learning that there are big benefits to such perseverance, for society and for themselves.”

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