Classroom: Biotechnology of Healthcare
Students routinely get a healthy dose of the future of medicine in ENGS 5, “Healthcare and Biotechnology in the 21st Century,” a popular Thayer School course aimed at non-majors. The class takes students on a tour of technological challenges and possibilities, including regenerating missing organs and limbs, using robots as replacements for human parts, and cloning.
The course is co-taught by longtime biotechnology collaborators Peter Robbie and Dr. Joseph Rosen. Robbie, a Thayer School lecturer, is a product designer with a research focus on medical imaging. Adjunct professor Rosen is a practicing plastic surgeon at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center and an expert on neurological repair, tissue engineering, and artificial nerve grafts. The two share the podium with guest speakers who acquaint students with a wide range of technological advances. For example, guest lecturer Norman Badler headlined one class last spring with the topic “Representing and Parameterizing Embodied Agent Behaviors.” Badler, a computer science professor at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert on modeling and animating human images in 3-D graphics, explained part of the difficulty involved in substituting virtual characters for real people: viewers need less than 10 seconds to judge the effectiveness of a computer-generated character.
Student Kenneth Muigai ’07, an English and film studies major, says that his favorite class focused on artificial limbs. The lecture was delivered by a man with a prosthetic arm — and by the doctor who fitted it to him. The patient showed the class his collection of artificial arms — manual, battery-powered, and cosmetic — and talked about the capabilities and limitations of each. “The lecture definitely made me think about the future,” Muigai says. “The fact that doctors and engineers are designing limbs with the specific goal of getting the patients back to where they can participate in their normal activities is not only sensational but extremely uplifting.”
The course explores issues behind such advances as well. The professors discuss the ins and outs of getting Food and Drug Administration approval of new treatments. They pose ethical questions surrounding cloning and other technologies. And they entice the imagination by examining what would be needed to create wings for humans or how to get virtual humans to follow instructions. From these flights of medical fancy to the current state of implants and robotics, the professors challenge students to think about how technologies could be used to solve real-world problems in the future.
“Unless you read Scientific American regularly, you’re not going to know this stuff,” says pre-med student Courtney Chau ’08.
Biology major Jennifer Cech ’08 likes the way the class meshes biology with engineering. “You’re right at the cutting edge of what is going on in the world,” she says.
For more photos, visit our Engineering in Medicine set on Flickr.