The Life Sciences Offer Job Opportunities for Engineers

The field requires people who know automation, imaging, and product safety

10 June 2015

An apple a day is said to keep the doctor away, but nowadays doctors are more likely to keep their patients healthy with an Apple device instead. Doctors are using mobile gadgets outfitted with diagnostic software and wirelessly synced medical equipment to monitor their patients’ health at any time.

“Medicine is not practiced the way it used to be,” says IEEE Fellow Donna Hudson, chair of the IEEE Life Sciences Technical Community (LSTC), which includes members from the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society, five other IEEE societies, and other groups involved in related sciences.

“Medicine has become even more complex,” Hudson says. “To advance, the field needs people who understand automation, computing, diagnostics, imaging, product safety, and other technologies.”

In other words, medicine needs IEEE members.

e-health on the rise

Engineers are needed in nearly every area of the life sciences, including biomedical engineering and genomics, according to Nahum Gershon, an LSTC steering committee member representing the IEEE Consumer Electronics Society. He is a senior principal scientist with MITRE Corp., a not-for-profit company based in McLean, Va. MITRE operates federally funded R&D centers for the U.S. government in such areas as systems engineering, signal processing, and mobile technology.

“Medicine is becoming more and more reliant on electronic devices,” he says. “Instruments and medical-imaging technologies are used in almost every aspect of routine medical work. Surgeons are able to implant devices in the human body that deliver medication, monitor body functions, and provide support to organs and tissues.”

Some of these devices, in combination with wearable technology, can function as part of a network of sensors, actuators, and other mobile-communication devices—collectively known as the Internet of Things—that can continuously monitor the state of a patient’s health. “These connected health care technologies are poised to revolutionize areas such as home care and the tracking of diseases that include hypertension, diabetes, allergies, and asthma,” Gershon says.

None of this would be possible without high-tech professionals. “Doctors need to understand and cope with all these different technologies, and engineers and scientists can make things simpler for them,” he adds.

Take the Human Genome Project’s mission to map and identify in its entirety the genetic material of humans. “All the information now at the doctors’ disposal has led to an overload of data to analyze, which is in contrast to what they used to have: not enough information,” says Gershon. “They need the help of sophisticated computers and data scientists to deal with it.”

And as the technologies continue to move ahead, societal changes will open up even more opportunities.

JOBS IN DEMAND

With aging populations worldwide, a growing middle class in developing countries, the desire to ameliorate chronic illnesses such as diabetes, and increased government spending on health care, the LSTC predicts that the number of life sciences jobs around the world will expand dramatically over the coming years.

The LSTC recently calculated that 1.1 million people in the United States are already employed in R&D in the life sciences. The pharmaceutical and medical manufacturing sector employs another 270,000 people. And there are hundreds of thousands more in genetic testing, biotechnology, and nanotechnology. In many fields, employment over the past 15 years has more than doubled.

Recent listings on job boards for life sciences–related positions include corporate and academic openings for software engineers, imaging technologists, quality-control specialists, automation engineers, systems engineers, and numerous other related professionals.

These fields, it should be noted, pay extremely well. The LSTC found that in 2012—the most recent year for which numbers are available—the pharmaceutical and medical manufacturing sector had one of the highest average annual salaries in the United States, at US $110,000.

GETTING IN

Hudson and Gershon agree that just about anyone already working in technology could move over to the life sciences, although it’s helpful to have a working knowledge of biology. That’s easy enough to gain by taking a few introductory courses in biology, anatomy, cell biology, and epidemiology. Gershon recommends online resources available through the Harvard University Online Learning program.

For some areas—such as medical informatics, which combines medicine and computing—getting a doctorate or master’s in biology or a related field may be necessary. For those unsure of which area of the life sciences to pursue, it is helpful to talk to those working in different aspects of medicine to learn more about their industry. Another option is to participate in seminars and meetings for life sciences and health care professionals at local hospitals, universities, and research institutions.

Hudson says engineers have a huge advantage when moving into the life sciences, because although doctors may understand which medical problems they want to solve, they might not have the technical know-how to accomplish their goals. “And the engineering part is just too difficult for them to learn in a short time frame,” she says.

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