Advances in life sciences such as cell biology, genomics, and pharmacology, as well as society’s desire to improve health care, have led to a need for more of what IEEE has to offer: statistical methods, image analyses, diagnostic devices, and medical equipment standards, to name just a few contributions. They all involve electrical and computer engineering and computer science—areas in which IEEE has a wealth of experience.
All told, IEEE has about 26 societies, technical councils and committees that are each involved in some aspect of the life sciences. Plus, there are more than 20 IEEE standards for medical device communications, and nearly 90 annual conferences and 20 periodicals that cover the field or related topics.
But few people are aware of what a major player IEEE is in the field because life sciences activities are scattered across the organization and not well publicized. That’s why the Board of Directors in February made establishing a leadership role within life sciences one of IEEE’s top priorities for 2011.
The first effort in this regard was launched in June. It’s the new IEEE Life Sciences portal, which showcases upcoming conferences and research papers, standards, and educational materials. The portal resulted from work done by a team within the Life Sciences New Initiative project (LSNI), organized last year to help the Board assess IEEE’s role.
“There was a need to develop a coherent IEEE life sciences strategy that would guide volunteers and staff on how to expand activities in this field,” says IEEE Fellow Mathukumalli Vidyasagar, one of the co-chairs of the LSNI project team and a professor of systems biology science at the University of Texas, Dallas. “Without such a strategy, the opportunity to get the word out that the organization is a great resource for those in life sciences would have passed us by.”
The initiative’s goals are threefold: to coordinate life sciences activities across IEEE, raise IEEE’s public profile in the area, and find ways to boost IEEE membership among the life sciences community. Five teams were formed. One built the life science portal and now provides content for it, while another is an editorial team that acts as a reviewer and gatekeeper to ensure the quality of the content. The third is responsible for programs designed to persuade people from the life sciences community to join IEEE. That team also is working on a strategy to create an organizational structure within IEEE for life sciences activities and to market them. The fourth team is focused on promoting IEEE publications and conferences that cover life sciences to the broader scientific community. The fifth team is responsible for coordinating the discussion and identifying any so-called Grand Challenges facing the field and figuring out how to solve them.
Technology and the life sciences are converging at a faster pace than ever before for several reasons, Vidyasagar says. One is the need to analyze the mountains of data coming from tasks such as gene sequencing.
“In prior years, the data was sufficiently small, so researchers could make some sense of it,” he says. “But now the amount of data is so much larger that tools like computation and visualization are much more important.”
Also, biologists want to take more measurements within the body—which requires sophisticated instruments. But biological signals tend to be extremely noisy, Vidyasagar says, so there’s a need for semiconductor circuits that come with a lot of sophisticated on-board signal processing.
“These are all core activities for IEEE,” he points out.
But IEEE can’t do it alone, according to Bin He, chair of the Grand Challenges subteam and co-chair of the LSNI project team. He is an IEEE Fellow and past president of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society, as well as a professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, and director of its Center for Neuroengineering.
Some of the challenges are in telemedicine, biomedical sensors, instrumentation, nanotechnology, computer modeling, health informatics, biological imaging, and neurotechnology, He says.
He and the Grand Challenges subteam are planning a meeting for next year to bring together about 200 invited representatives from industry, academia, and government so they can identify the major challenges in the life sciences, prioritize them, and begin tackling them. The Grand Challenges conference also will serve as a platform for debating and coordinating efforts of the IEEE Life Sciences Initiative in collaboration with major stakeholders outside of IEEE, says He.
The IEEE Life Sciences Initiative will attack the major challenges in life sciences, including health care, “by technological innovation so we can better serve the larger society,” He continues. “Though we have a lot to do already, it is important for us to unite with others involved with life sciences and put our efforts together.”