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INNOVATION

Tiny Technologies,
Titanic Impact

INNOVATION

Tiny Technologies With Titanic Impact

INNOVATION

Tiny Technologies With Titanic Impact

Dr. Ash Parameswaran develops miniature systems that perform complex functions to solve real-world problems, and nurtures a generation of problem solvers to do the same

Picture for a moment that you are a parent living in a remote village in rural India. Your baby is sick with diarrhea and fever and the antibiotic given to her by the village’s health-care worker doesn’t appear to be working. So you decide to take your child on the grueling 30-kilometre trip to the nearest town with a public health centre. When you arrive, after a long wait to see the doctor, you’re sent away with some oral rehydration solution and instructions to come back in a week once the lab results are in.

Now imagine that you are this same parent, but this time when you visit your village’s health-care worker pulls out a smartphone, plugs a small $5 device into its USB port, and dips it into a sample of your baby’s body fluid. She uploads the results to the public health centre, and two hours later he is able to prescribe the correct antibiotic for your child.

Point-of-care technologies such as these are revolutionizing healthcare and saving lives around the world by expediting accurate diagnoses and reducing the threat of drug resistant bacteria.

They are among the many technologies for broad public use that are emerging from the Institute of Micromachine and Microfabrication Research led by SFU engineering scientist Ash Parameswaran. Here, his group of faculty and students collaborate to develop miniature systems that perform complex functions—everything from antennas and vehicle sensory systems, to portable “lab-on-a-chip” devices that can detect the presence of pathogens in food or in the body, and pressure sensors for surgical procedures. Parameswaran says, “In developing parts of the world, the need of the hour is for medication to cure disease, rather than the thorough genetic study of the bug causing the disease. Point-of-care technologies are essential to meet this need.”

SFU snapped up the talented Parameswaran for a spot as assistant professor in its School of Engineering upon his microelectronics PhD completion in 1989. Since then, the award-winning teacher has mentored close to 100 graduate students, many of whom now hold prominent academic or industry positions nationally and internationally. He considers this to be his greatest contribution to the field and to society—nurturing a new generation of problem solvers.

For instance, he led a trio of graduate students in a collaborative project with Indian researchers to develop a new class of lab-on-a-chip devices based on his group’s plastic microfluidics technology. The idea was hatched during a trip to his native India in 2008 when Parameswaran heard about the urgent need for a low cost, fast and accurate way to diagnose infantile diarrhea in remote areas of the country. With funding from the Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute, within a year his group developed the first prototype – an “antibiogram” on a chip, which glows to signal whether or not a specific antibiotic will be effective against the strain of bacteria found in the sample. They then received $100,000 from the federal government’s Stars in Global Health program to advance the prototype and it is currently being tested and validated in the field in India. Once it is commercialized, Parameswaran says “It could pave the way for other diagnostic tests that improve quality of life around the world. “

For his outstanding contributions to the field of engineering science, Parameswaran received a 2013 Meritorious Achievement award from the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of B.C., and was inducted into the Canadian Academy of Engineers in 2015.

References

Dr. Ash Parameswaran is a popular professor of Engineering Science and director of the NSERC-funded Institute of Micromachine and Microfabrication Research at SFU, and his research interest is in the field of applied MEMS (micro-fluidics and nanotechnology for biomedical instrumentation). Having gained an international reputation in microsystems technology, Dr. Parameswaran has served as a consultant for agencies such as National Institute of Standards and Technology, National Institute of Health, NATO, and the United Nations. His many honours include a 2013 Meritorious Achievement award Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of B.C., and in 2015 he was inducted into the Canadian Academy of Engineers (CAE), as well as several awards for excellence in teaching. In the past six years alone, he has supervised or co-supervised nearly 100 graduate students.    

Q & A with Ash Parameswaran 

What motivates you as a researcher/innovator?

The challenge of applying engineering solutions to real world problems to create something that could help people and society.

How is your research making an impact in our lives?

I do not want to claim big things here. Research facilitated by SFU's encouragement has allowed me an opportunity to work on engineering applications for world problems. We have to wait some more time to see the results of the impact.

How important is collaboration in advancing research?

Anything new and useful for this world in the engineering domain needs an interdisciplinary team. So, collaboration is extremely important.

If you could sum up the value of university research in a word, what would it be?

Transformative.

What does "open innovation" mean to you?

The ability to explore innovation without any hindrance and then make those results non-restrictively useful for the entire world.

SFU bills itself as “Canada’s most engaged research university.” How does your own work exemplify this spirit of engagement?

The encouragement and support offered by SFU allows us to engage collaborators from anywhere in the world as well as all across campus to address the critical problems plaguing society, be it social or technical. This opens up new avenues for research exploration.

What advice would you give to your younger self on the challenges you faced as a researcher?

Never give up.

Putting one’s research out into the world often requires a leap of courage. Where do you derive your courage from?

My work environment, my colleagues and collaborator, and above all the enthusiastic students who would like to take up the same path to meet the world’s the challenges.

What do you see as the most noteworthy emerging trend that will shape the direction university research over the next 50 years?

From an engineering perspective, I am noticing research trends going toward healthy living that would enhance society.

SFU has much to celebrate on its 50th anniversary. Looking ahead to our 100th anniversary in 2065, what do you think SFU will be most notable for?

My estimation would be that SFU will be on the map for most innovative institution, one that has provided crucial components for a transformative and productive society.