Conference to Highlight Grand Challenges in the Life Sciences

The meeting will also showcase contributions engineers have made

21 October 2013

This year’s Life Sciences Grand Challenges Conference, to be held in Singapore on 2 and 3 December, will be a forum for discussion and debate of the grand challenges and major trends at the interface of engineering, the life sciences, and health care.

“It isn’t a typical IEEE conference, where people discuss research and findings,” says IEEE Fellow Bin He, conference chair of last year’s conference and a member of this year’s steering committee. Like last year’s initial conference, this year’s was organized by the team that launched the IEEE Life Sciences Initiative in 2011. “It’s really about a bigger picture—discussing in a global sense how engineers can work better with life sciences,” says He.

Presentations will be by invitation only, with all participants encouraged to join the interactive panel discussions that follow the presentations. Topics include challenges in medicine and health care, the globalization of biomedical research, innovations and entrepreneurship, frontiers of biotechnology, big data and data mining, neuroscience and human brain mapping, and a number of medical technologies, including imaging, robotics, nanotechnology, and biotechnology. A unique “Neuro Night” event has been added this year, says Nitish Thakor, the conference chair, “to showcase frontiers of brain sciences such as reverse-engineering the brain and brain-machine interface technologies.”

“These are areas where the life sciences intersect with electrical engineering, computer engineering, computer science, and mathematics,” says invited speaker Moshe Kam, the 2011 IEEE president and head of the electrical and computer engineering department at Drexel University, in Philadelphia. “This ‘intersection’ appears to be growing rapidly.”


The role IEEE plays in life sciences is much bigger than most people—including many members—realize.

“The purpose of the conference and of the IEEE Life Sciences initiative is not only to highlight the frontiers of various technologies and how they affect the life sciences and health care but also to show what role engineers in general and IEEE members in particular can play,” says Thakor.

IEEE receives no credit for the broad range of activities its members carry out in biomedical engineering and the life sciences, according to IEEE Fellow Bruce Wheeler, an invited speaker and president of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society. “The EMBS society is the world’s largest biomedical engineering organization, with 10 journals. The effort to expand the life sciences is much bigger than EMBS alone, which is why we look to the life sciences community for complementary leadership. I’d bet a third of all the other IEEE journals publish papers with life sciences content. The same is true of IEEE conference activity.”

A week after the life sciences conference, the IEEE Microwave Theory and Techniques Society will bring its IEEE International Microwave Workshop Series on RF and Wireless Technologies for Biomedical and Healthcare Applications to Singapore, from 9 to 11 December.

Highlighting the breadth of IEEE members’ contributions to the life sciences is another aim of the conference. “IEEE members make tremendous contributions to basic and applied life sciences with such things as novel sensors and devices, delivery of medical information over the Internet, electronic health records, and point-of-care technologies,” says Wheeler. “Our profession was also heavily involved in developing MRI, a tremendous breakthrough in medical imaging. And the human genome project was as much a bioengineering as a biological success due to its dependence on electronics and computers.”

Adds Kam: “We also want to convey that IEEE is expanding its activities and presence in the life sciences area in an intentional and focused manner. And we want to discuss how IEEE can capture, process, and disseminate new knowledge (and improve the dissemination of existing knowledge) so as to be as useful as possible for researchers and practitioners.

And by holding the conference in Singapore, “we hope to introduce IEEE’s resources and interests in the life sciences to colleagues in Southeast Asia and start an IEEE-relevant dialog with academics, R&D experts, and policy and decision makers in that part of the world,” Kam continues. “We want to make them more aware of the pertinent knowledge already accumulated by IEEE in its publications and conferences.”

As IEEE becomes better known in the life sciences, adds Wheeler, “more people—from seasoned leaders to young investigators—will see that they can gain professional value from associating and partnering with IEEE, and they may even join.”

And as IEEE members become more aware of the challenges and technical needs of the life sciences, Thakor believes they will be drawn into this field. “I hope that by becoming more visible to the broad life sciences community, we will encourage more participation by engineers,” he says.

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