Three Ways Engineers Save Lives

From cutting-edge medical advances to structural safety in building design, engineers are unsung heroes

3 July 2017

Typically, engineers are thought of as builders and inventors—not as life savers. That distinction has traditionally been reserved for doctors, nurses, fire rescue professionals, and police officers. However, as technology increasingly becomes part of life-saving tools, procedures, medication, and equipment, engineers responsible for their development are seen as heroes in their own right.

Here are three ways engineers save lives:

  • #1 Biomedical Engineering

    Some engineers, such as renowned MIT professor and IEEE Member Robert Langer, work on delivering large molecular drugs to targeted areas in the body to treat diseases, including cancer. Such materials science and chemical engineering is credited with improving upwards of 2 billion lives. Nanotechnology is a major focus area for Langer and others who are creating nanoparticles to target diseases. By manipulating polymer, lipid, and polymer-lipid hybrid nanocarriers, drug delivery is improved. Engineers are also working on controlled delivery systems for genetically engineered therapeutic proteins, DNA, and RNA. Additionally, engineers are working to develop replacement tissues and organs for transplantation. 

  • #2 Sanitation

    According to the World Water Council, one in six people—that’s about 1.1 billion—don’t have access to clean drinking water. Contaminated water supplies are responsible for the vast majority (up to 80 percent) of all illness and disease. Furthermore, dirty water leads to the death of more people annually than all forms of violence combined. The World Health Organization reports that diarrhea, which is often caused by poor sanitation, is the third largest cause of death among children globally.

    Preventing such unsanitary conditions by maintaining and improving water and sanitation infrastructure falls under the purview of civil engineers who design water and waste treatment plants. Environmental engineers have been instrumental in reducing lead contamination in the water supply. In addition, pharmaceuticals can disrupt the environment; through research, engineers are developing creative approaches to prevent such adversity.

    It's no wonder, then, that many underdeveloped countries are searching for engineers, rather than doctors, to protect their population. Prevention of illness is more desirable than curing it, not only to save lives but also as a cost-savings measure. According to the United Nations, worldwide clean water access could be attained by spending US $30 billion dollars annually, which is roughly the amount the United States spends on bottled water every year.

  • #3 Earthquake Protection

    An estimated 10,000 people die annually as a result of earthquakes, according to a study done by Florida International University, in Miami. Seismic engineering can help design and create buildings that can withstand even high-magnitude earthquakes. Unfortunately, many structures—particularly those in developing countries—aren’t constructed with that kind of planning. Haiti is an example of the devastating consequences that occur when engineers are not involved from the blueprint stage. In 2010, Haiti was hit by a magnitude 7.0 earthquake that killed more than 100,000 people, largely because of collapsed buildings.

    Engineers are using a variety of different bearings and dampers; rubber bearings, in particular, are among the most promising. Newly constructed buildings benefit from the advancements in building materials, but so do retrofitted buildings, such as San Francisco City Hall, which was completed in 1915. Rubber bearings, in conjunction with base-isolation technology, are inexpensive techniques engineers can employ to help prevent building collapse during or in the aftermath of an earthquake.

    Engineers have left an indelible mark on world history. Innovative engineers have built stronger buildings, safer skyways and healthier environments. Their designs have helped people live longer and be more productive. Engineers manage to isolate the problems that need to be addressed, create solutions, and, along the way, change and even save lives.

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