From Engineering Science to Engineering Tissues

Lessons learned on my continuing journey to success

My Engineering Science story (0T5, Biomed) began much like any other EngSci story….as early as high school. My Grade 11 chemistry teacher Mrs. Hollander inspired me and a few like-minded schoolmates to enter a biotechnology paper competition, and so we did. This involved not just writing up a 4 page research paper (something we’d never done in our lives) but also making frequent, lengthy trips to visit a Professor at U of T to understand the science behind our project, as well as late night sessions at Gerstein Science Library on “PubMed”. We didn’t win the competition, but that didn’t matter — from then on, my interest was piqued and I began taking predominantly biology-oriented courses in high school. I realized the very practical way in which an understanding of biology affected my daily life – be it in the food I ate, the importance of exercising, the clothes I wore, and the natural or artificial wonders surrounding me. I also began wondering in what way I could use these principles to solve problems and to help people in need. So I began signing up for numerous summer volunteer positions in various hospitals (Sick Kids, St. Michael’s, Mt. Sinai) to further push the boundaries of my curiosity and get my hands dirty with lab work, of any kind (even grunt work). Lesson learned: be inspired, and build your foundation slowly and early.

In my final year of high school, I realized I wanted to be a Biomedical Engineer, and I knew I wanted to stay in Canada for my studies. The only challenge was in finding an undergraduate program that offered a Biomedical Engineering major, and back in 2004, these were few and far between. McGill, UBC, and U of T were offering Biomedical options (McMaster was just kick-starting its program then), but the U of T Biomedical Engineering option of Engineering Science was by far the most established of the three. The rumours surrounding EngSci were resoundingly ominous: 98% entrance averages, accelerated program condensed into 2 years, most difficult engineering program in Canada, etc.). Despite the daunting rumours, a foolish pride overcame me and, instead, I went headlong into the deep end of EngSci, choosing the hardest courses I could. Lesson learned: Never take the easy road.

The first year of EngSci was the toughest – marks dropped significantly, my stress level peaked, and sleep was a luxury more than a necessity.   Second year design was probably the most difficult challenge I faced (The “Wing Commander” robot we built went in circles instead of detecting mines and flagging them, but hey, at least we made it to the qualifying rounds!), second only to the dreaded “thesis week” in 4th year where I didn’t sleep for 2 days straight (a fellow EngSci reminded me of the time he saw me sleeping at my keyboard, head down, while typing my thesis mid sentence…those were some dark days!). But we EngScis are survivors, and we don’t give up easily. And before I knew it, I was donning an iron ring. And then, several years later, with a few pretty neat papers / beating heart tissues to my credit, my Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering followed (IBBME, 1T2). Lesson learned: EngScis persevere…against all odds.

Today, as Senior Scientist of Tissue Regeneration Therapeutics (TRT) Inc., I realize the value of my EngSci education. Being an integral player in a nascent early-stage biotechnology company, often requires that I wear numerous hats simultaneously, meeting with clinicians, professors, financial advisors, and basic scientists on a routine basis and speaking their various languages. The beauty of this is, being a “Jack of all trades” is something you are basically trained to do as an EngSci. An EngSci studies electromagnetics, C programming, bioengineering, physics, linear algebra, quantum physics, aerospace engineering, and differential equations, taught by the cream of the crop of professors at the U of T …and that’s just the first year of the EngSci curriculum! Though certainly not a master of everything that comes my way, I know where to look and how to learn when necessary. I thrive on problem-solving, and TRT deals with some of the biggest problems one can fathom: engineering a stem cell therapy that is not only safe to use in humans – but one that can save lives. These are the problems biomedical engineers train for. And solving them may lead to the discovery of some very powerful biology, indeed. Lesson learned: Appreciate the world class education you get as an EngSci.

It’s an ideal marriage in some respects – throw a biomedical engineer in the midst of a proverbial “shark tank” of healthcare problem scenarios, give him or her all the interdisciplinary tools and resources they need to solve a huge unmet need, and see if Darwinian evolution takes its course. Chances are, the EngSci will be among the fittest to survive and adapt…an essential trait in an ever-competitive job market. Lesson learned: Keep learning, and use your knowledge to be the best you can be.

The iron ring I received in 0T5 still adorns my right hand because it’s a source of pride to me and will always be a source of strength, and a reminder of the responsibility that comes with being an engineer and an EngSci. It tells me I can survive any form of adversity, academic or otherwise. With it were forged long-lasting friendships, and academic principles that I employ in my day to day work. It made me the person I am today, and for that I am grateful. Lesson learned: I will always be an EngSci…and EngSci will always be part of me.

Rohin Iyer, Ph.D.

Senior Scientist,

Tissue Regeneration Therapeutics Inc.

 

Photo credit: Impressions by Annuj