Engineers Making a Difference

When high school girls are asked what they want from a career, one popular response is that they want to be able to make a difference in the world. They want to make a positive impact and help people. Unfortunately, many people don’t necessarily link that goal with engineering and that is a shame.

I know that engineers are out there making a difference.  Last fall I read an article from the LA Times about biomedical engineer Edward Damiano who is working on a new device to help Type 1 diabetics. For him, the project is personal since his son has the disease.

Unlike Type 2 diabetes which can be caused by the body’s inability to use its insulin and is often linked to obesity, Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease in which the immune system mistakenly kills off the cells that produce insulin. Without insulin, sugar in the blood cannot be processed and used as fuel. When this occurs, sugar builds up the in the blood and life-threatening complications can occur.

Currently there is no cure for Type 1 diabetes, although researchers are still searching.  For now, patients must manage the disease by monitoring their blood sugar and injecting insulin several times a day.  Some patients must still rely on shots, but others are lucky enough to benefit from newer technology that has replaced insulin shots with a continuous insulin pump. Blood sugar levels in the tissues can now be detected using a continuous glucose monitor.

Managing Type 1 diabetes is tricky.  If the blood sugar goes too high, it can cause complications and contribute to long-term damage to the nervous system, eyes and kidneys.  If too much insulin is applied and the blood sugar goes too low, a patient can go into convulsions, lose consciousness and go into a potential deadly coma, as the character Shelby did in the movie Steel Magnolias .  Unfortunately, the disease is nicknamed “Juvenile Diabetes” because it is usually diagnosed when patients are children or young adults.

The device Edward Damiano is working on manages the blood sugar by mimicking the pancreas. It senses the sugar level in the blood and releases glucagon or insulin to raise or lower blood sugar as needed. The specific piece that Damiano is developing is the software control algorithm. He is using techniques from a field called Control Theory, also commonly used in robotics.

When I read his story of jumping into this project to help treat his own son’s disease, it hit a chord with me. This could really make a difference in not only his son’t life, but others as well. My nephew was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at age 3. I hated hearing about how he was getting shots several times a day. My sister told me that anytime he gets sick enough to vomit, she has to take him to the emergency room because it can throw his blood sugar into a dangerous state. When he was little she couldn’t leave him with a regular baby sitter since few are qualified to manage his diabetes. And they have to vigilantly count the carbs he eats to ensure he gets the right dose of insulin.

Since I have a background in biomedical engineering, this story had me thinking about jumping out of the telecommuncations industry and finding a job on one of these diabetes projects (there are other groups doing similar work). And I might have done that if I didn’t have personal commitments preventing me from up and moving. There is just something about working on a project like that which really motivates me. The satisfaction from helping others makes me proud to be an engineer.

To learn more about Type 1 diabetes and the current research efforts, check out the JDRF website .

To try your hand at managing diabetes, check out the Diabetic Dog Game.

15-year-old student wins Intel award for developing inexpensive and accurate cancer detection test

Over the weekend I heard a story about a 15-year-old who won the Intel Science Fair competition for developing a test to detect pancreatic cancer.  The test is inexpensive and remarkably accurate.  The fact that this boy beat researchers in creating this test is truly amazing.  I was awed and inspired reading the story.  His brother has also won an impressive award in science.  It will be interesting to follow him while he attends college and beyond.

The story explains how even as a young child he was curious about the world around him and tested out how things worked.  This type of exploration and curiosity is a trait of many of the best scientists and engineers I know.  They want to know how things work and find ways to create better designs.

This is not to say that you have to be a genius to be an engineer.  You need to be curious and interested in solving problems.  This boy’s story should be inspiration as to what is possible.  Also, don’t think that a child cannot be a scientist or engineer if they haven’t solved some big problem by age 15.  I never competed in a science fair in middle or high school.  Unfortunately, my school never participated in such events.  However if a student does have an opportunity to be involved in science fairs or engineering competitions, they should take advantage of it.  These events help get students interested in science and engineering.  It helps them understand what kind of work these careers entail and whether or not it might be of interest to them.

The real major roadblock to pursuing a STEM field that I worry about is that if a student decides late in their high school years that they want to pursue such a field, they may not have taken the classes they will need.  When I was in school the graduation requirements for science and math were very skimpy: 2 years of science, 3 years of math.   Students need to complete 4 years of math and take high school chemistry and physics to really be prepared for a technical curriculum in college.  Otherwise students may have to take remedial classes (hint: extra classes = extra time & cost) before they can enter an engineering program.   If a student has even a remote interest in STEM, they should check out college entrance requirements while they are still a high school freshman so they can be sure to fulfill them.  Otherwise they may  lose opportunities down the road.