You might think scientific professionals all speak a similar language. Not so when it comes to engineers and life scientists. But as the two fields have moved closer together in recent years—in such areas as medical imaging, prosthetics, brain wave transmission, and robotics—IEEE realized it needed a more organized interface between the two.
IEEE Fellow Bin He, cochair of the IEEE Life Sciences New Initiative and chair of the IEEE Life Sciences Grand Challenges team, which held its first conference in October in Washington, D.C., is a key leader in fashioning that interface.
Last year, IEEE formed the Life Sciences New Initiative to become a major player at the intersection of life sciences and engineering. Since becoming cochair in early 2011, He has helped establish five teams to further that initiative. One group developed a life sciences Web portal and provides some of its content; a second ensures the quality of that content; a third creates programs to attract life science professionals to join IEEE; a fourth promotes IEEE publications and conferences, bringing life sciences news to the larger scientific community; and the fifth identifies and tries to solve the major problems—or “grand challenges”—facing the field.
One of He’s main efforts was to organize the Grand Challenges Conference, which focused on eliminating obstacles impeding the cohesion of engineering and the life sciences and determining how collaboration between the two fields can affect the scientific community, government, business, and society. The conference attracted entrepreneurs and representatives from political, professional, and academic institutions for a two-day brainstorming session.
Next month, He is to become editor in chief of IEEE Transactions on Biomedical Engineering, which plans to publish a special issue highlighting the ideas that emerged from the conference.
“The most difficult task is getting engineers and people in the life sciences to better communicate,” He says. “Another is learning how engineers, specifically IEEE members, can play a major role in innovating and revolutionizing medical devices and procedures and health care. And a third is figuring out ways to join forces and craft partnerships.”
He has been in the midst of that culture clash since his days as a biomedical engineering researcher in the late 1980s and early ’90s at the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology, which attracted a mix of engineers and doctors. He is now a distinguished professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Minnesota, in Minneapolis, and director of its Institute for Engineering in Medicine, which cosponsored the Grand Challenges Conference.
He, who was president of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society from 2009 to 2010, was admitted this year to the International Academy of Medical and Biological Engineering, an elite worldwide organization of 100 scientific professionals.
“Every one of my grant proposals for my research has a life scientist or physician as a coinvestigator,” He notes. “We have to work together as a team.”
inspired by the brain
He’s passion dates back to his teenage years. Growing up in a small town near Shanghai, he decided on a career involving life sciences and engineering after reading a magazine article in high school about research measuring the brain’s biomagnetic field. “I wanted to understand my own brain better,” he says.
He earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Zhejiang University in China in 1982. He went on to earn a master’s in electrical engineering in 1985 and a Ph.D. in bioelectrical engineering in 1988 from the Tokyo Institute of Technology. He followed that with a postdoctoral fellowship and took a research scientist position at the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology, where he remained until 1994.
During the next decade, he rose to become a professor of bioengineering and electrical engineering at the University of Illinois, in Chicago, before taking a position as a professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Minnesota in 2004.
The UM programs he directs include the Biomedical Functional Imaging and Neuroengineering Laboratory and the Center for Neuroengineering. Most of his research focuses on neuroengineering and imaging. His labs developed dynamic 3-D medical imaging techniques to ascertain brain and cardiac health and to detect cancer. The techniques enable neurosurgeons to see what’s happening in the brain in real time and how it affects the rest of the body.
Another research effort applies engineering methods to read signals from the brain, and modulate it using electrical or magnetic stimulation. Applications of such research include mitigating the effects of Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy, and depression.
One school of thought suggests that symptoms of those disorders can be caused by neural misfiring, which could be alleviated by electrical modulation. That involves implanting devices in the brain or employing wearable devices that counteract impulses of major nerve clusters. The battery-driven implants send electrical signals along neural pathways that override or nullify the impulses causing the damaging symptoms, such as tremors, depression, or lost memory.
He has also worked on brain-computer interfaces that translate thoughts into commands. “Last year, my lab was the first to control the flight of a virtual helicopter in 3-D space using electroencephalography and novel signal processing,” he says. “When I first heard of the possibility of moving a cursor by thought, I didn’t believe it could be done. But I spent the next 10 years trying to do it. This year, we succeeded in using an EEG to control a real [propeller-driven] flying robot—for the first time in the world, to our knowledge.”
In that experiment, volunteers each wore a cap containing multiple electrode sensors that picked up the slight electric currents produced by brain waves. Different thoughts changed the wave patterns. As the subjects imagined steering the flying robot, the sensors would pick up the waves and wirelessly transmit them to a laptop that amplified the waves and ran them through signal processing algorithms to extract control signals. Those signals were then wirelessly transmitted to the drone to control its flight in real time.
“Key to our success was the integration of engineering innovation and neuroscience research,” He says. “It reflects the essence of the IEEE Life Sciences New Initiative.”