A philosophy of biomedical engineering laboratories

A final lecture delivered to the students of BIOMEDE 241, Dec 10, 2018

I generally don’t speak candidly of my experience in research laboratories. As I stand before you today, I cannot swear to the source of my reservation, but I can confidently attest to its presence. I do not talk about what really goes on in any laboratory environment to anyone outside of that laboratory environment. Nor do others, I find. For all the plaudits the “openness” of science gets, there is definitely an ever-present, seldom addressed dark arts vibe to the whole business, no matter how professionalized. And while there are a great many reasons why this might be the case, I suspect some significant portion of it comes from the phenomena that emerges when you get a bunch of smart people in a room all doing something worth a damn. Such phenomena include but are not limited to grace under pressure, communication in dynamic settings, synthesis of disparate materials. These are all good things. These are all especially good things to biomedical engineers.

So why don’t I speak of my time? For one, there is simply too much else in this world to discuss than the details concerning hours upon hours of research within a laboratory. There’s assassinations affecting geopolitics, an economy that is bucking even as it produces the largest biotechnology IPO in recorded human history, and at least for the bulk of the semester, a generally good football game of which to speak after every Saturday. All this to say, there’s lots of stuff to talk about.

Two, accompanying my experience is a sort of sheepishness. It’s not quite embarrassment, but once you learn how many scientific set ups published in peer reviewed journals are held together by duct tape, zipline, and hope, some of the majesty that lends itself so well to eloquence, escapes us. I figure if I tell people what we really do in lab, how much of the time is spent just sitting around or trying something that doesn’t work or trying something else that doesn’t work or sitting around and trying to think of another thing that in the end probably won’t even work so why even bother to try and sit around thinking? “Seeing how the sausage” is made doesn’t stop you from wanting sausage, but it does probably keep you from reaching for cliché and metaphor to describe it. Once you’ve been in it, you see it different.

My third reason for keeping my mouth shut on the subject can be filled at the “None Ya” Business. That is, sometimes the inner workings are meant to kept secret amongst a trusted network of peers. This secrecy can arise for any number of reasons – IP concerns, cutting-edge paper about to drop, etc. – but the long and short of it is that there is a very natural and human inclination to retain what’s yours and let other’s figure it out as you have. It should be our hope that such secrecy is reserved to a minimum as the fostering of collaboration – the meeting of many minds – is one of the best things that can come out of a laboratory environment.

Having given sufficient reasons not to talk about the topic, allow me to opine. I think my time in laboratory settings have been among the best filled days of my years. I can recall vivid and sincere memories of each lab I’ve ever worked. There I made some of my best friends and bitterest enemies, discovered things about the world and myself that have fundamental shaped who I am and what I’m about, and got to be a part of something bigger and more important than any single piece of it someone was working on. I’ve worked on magnetorheological fluids and elastomers – non-Newtonian fluids that are fluids normally and solid under a magnetic field. I’ve worked on a self-actuating catheter system utilizing ionic polymer metal composites. I’ve developed medical devices (shoe insoles for those with diabetic foot ulceration, modified Kirschner wires, wearable physiological sensors) and often gotten to test them in clinic. I was hired by a government weapon’s lab to do systems engineering on a mind controlling brain implant. Objectively, I’ve done some cool things in laboratories.

But I don’t talk about my experiences there. Perhaps for simple reason that one rarely mentions the things that make us us. A fish will not generally question the water around them. So it is with that subset of us that is best found in lab and in research. In exploration and in discovery and in problem-solving and in frustration and in triumph and in boredom, we are found. With any luck, you have learned something true and beautiful about yourself and your chosen field in this class. If we have but accomplished that here, we will have done something worthwhile. For now, I would like to talk about our experiences here.

First, we were welcomed–

–and an emphasis was placed on who we all were.

We, the instructors wished–

–you, the students the very best.

Especially as we learned statistics together.

Especially as we spent this kind of money together.

I suggested you learn–

–and we reviewed how resistors work–

–how capacitors work–

–what impedance is–

–how to interpret Ohm’s law–

–how series and parallel circuits behave–

–and how voltage is divided.

Because today, we understand circuits–

–tomorrow, we understand the world.

We found out where all biolectricity comes from–

–and modeled it simply–

–even if at times it didn’t seem simple enough.

We learned to leverage assumptions–

–and conclude what happens over time.

We looked at hierarchies of biological structures–

–and delegated divisions of labors amongst ourselves.

Sometimes, some of us consulted previous year’s material because we didn’t feel like reinventing the wheel.

At times–

–we reinvented the wheel. Hopefully to your benefit.

We learned how to relax in the presence of stress–

–and quickly identify the behavior of a creep.

We flexed materials to test their meddle–

–and found that geometry influenced the whole situation.

The shear stress of this class could be overwhelming–

–especially one we got to this research project.

Still. We learned many things worth knowing. Including but not limited to:

• Doing what you feel with regards to pineapple on pizza;
• The legalization of drugs;
• Favorite “non-human” animals;
• Preferences for lettuce;
• Preferences for the smoothness of one’s peanut butter
• Music’s healing effects;
• Michigan Time’s corrective effects;
• Our field’s relation to electrical engineering;
• The earliness of college;
• The pronunciation of the word “gif”;
• The Oxford comma;
• Teachers getting paid more and education itself being well-funded;
• The philosophy of beauty;
• The wetness of waters;
• The band that made the song “Roundabout”.

All that, learned here, in lab. That was indeed something worth knowing.

And as I believe each and every one of you has contributed significantly to what this class ultimately has been, if you will allow the time, I would like to now share a brief thought regarding each one of you in relation to this class.

Each and every one of you has made this class unique. I have you listed here in the order of your initial registration into one of my classes. You have retained your original numbers.

110. G. V. You continue again your quiet domination of my classes and their material. I can only hope that you confidence grows even further and that you come to feel that you really get this stuff.

111. J. Y.. Last in lab on the last lab period, there’s something special about those that stay behind to the bitterest of ends. Thank you for seeing our class through.

112. L. E. You are generally in early, generally chipper while in, generally cognizant of your surroundings, generally able to do what is asked of you, and generally able to do much more than that. You are generally the sort that I think of when I think of a good engineer and I am hopeful to see what good you can engineer.

113. A. T. I have written on the subject of Alice Tracey as part of a letter recommending her for something. In said letter I said that Alice “is smart, engaging, multi-faceted, talented in a number of areas, creative in a number more. The long and short of it is […] I think you should give her application serious consideration as she will no doubt benefit from your program and make proud all of those around her.” I continue to stand by those words.

114. K. Y. You have the distinction, such as it is, to be my first “3peat” student as you will be taking BIOMEDE 458 next semester. Moreover, you have the even more distinct distinction of being the first “3-and-a-half-peat” since you helped with ENGR 100 my very first semester. In fact, as it stands, you have seen the inside of my classrooms more than anyone but myself. And I hope you get what I’m after up here. And benefit thereby.

115. M. K. Going back to the very first day of a class I had you in (nearly a year ago now), you introduced yourself by saying your spirit animal was a fox. Over time, I’ve found that fitting as you are as quiet, clever, and cunning as such a spirit animal. May you use that cunning upon encountering any troubles in life.

116. R. A. What’s unfortunate is that with your having taken my circuits class, this laboratory class, and our upcoming instrumentation class is that you will have the makings of a damn fine biomedical engineer. And then you have to go an become some sort of medical doctor. I wish you very best in this and every endeavor.

117. E. B. If ever I were looking for a man to commiserate over the latest Lions game, hand cut sheet metal with a hacksaw, and conduct scientific experiments competently, I’d be looking for you. On behalf of the class allow me to say, we’re glad we found you.

119. K. C. I hope you and T., number 120, enjoyed the impromptu fieldtrip to the metal-shears in one of the half dozen machine shops we have sprinkled across campus. One should always get a little extra out of a lab class than a regular class, and if it was but that, I hope it was enough. And more!

120. T. E. I’ve seen you work hard, work through, work on and on and on. I’ve seen you shear metal and break bone. I’ve seen you on time, late, and early. All this to say, I’ve seen you in a number of ways, and in each of them I’ve been happy to see you. May this not be the last of it.

121. K. G. I’ve never seen someone’s eyes grow so large when talking about fixing things around their house as I did when your team was on the subject. The unabashed excitement elicited from you when thinking about fixing something is just the sort of thing we want out of engineers. May you stay excited.

122. T. H. I always wonder what you’re listening to before and after class, but as a man who listens to some rather odd stuff, I can respect your privacy on the matter. I hope it has helped put you in the mood to learn from this class and that you have learned well. Bump the jams a little louder today, for today we celebrate the end.

123. R. H. As a gymnast, perhaps you came in here with an intuition as to how the how body works, operates, moves. In this class where you have built circuitry to measure muscle activity, subjected biological and non-biological material to various stress and strain conditions, and conducted experiments investigating both and more. May your education continue to augment your intuition so that your judgement is keen.

124. R. K. You have gotten to experience a more unique laboratory/research environment than most as you’ve gotten to do two in parallel: one academic with Dr. J. A. M. and one “truly academic” here with us. Having seen at least two different ways of doing it should help to expose you to the near endless variety ways research is conducted in this world. And I hope it helped.

128. E. E. Whether you all know it or not as students, you each play a crucial role in this and each class. In this case, you are one of my bellwethers: keeping up with the content in class well and furrowing that brow noticeably when I’ve said something demonstrably confusing. This can be invaluable at times. At other times, Elaina, you are merely valuable.

129. D. H. I’ve seen an order of magnitude increase in the number of people who where fanny packs since you first entered my life and I don’t chalk that up to coincidence. May you, through your effort and perhaps mere presence, continue to make the world shine brighter. And pack more efficiently.

131. B. R. Rare are the individuals who can arrive each day to a room chipper. I do not mean to suggest that you yourself were always happy to be here (though I hope you were), but rather to say that the room shined a little brighter from your corner of it do in part your continued positive attitude on the subject and towards the people. May you continue on.

132. C. Y. Though mild, I’ve never thought you meek. You have demonstrated competence and confidence of your knowledge in multitude of laboratory environments. And you have demonstrated something in particular in never having to have yelled across the lab for something. May that continue to be true of each lab you enter onward.

136. E. S. As one of the few who knew what exactly was coming at you in the form of today’s speech I can only respect you further for having shown up. You and others will find this to continually be true in life: the world is to them who show up. Glad to have you a part of it.

264. T. P. At times the smile I’ve seen crack across your countenance while splattered in chicken parts has been downright childlike. If you can keep that curiosity and energy about you, you can conduct some really great science and that can regress you still further, having you drool like a baby over the latest results.

265. A. A. There are many types of modern day eurekas, but a few of yours have been among my favorite to witness this semester. The “huhs” of your “huh, so that’s how that work” were especially deep and guttural. It’s the thwack of evidence meeting the inertia of your thought. I hope you have gotten as much out of such moments as I have.

266. N. B. In this class you have not ruffled many feathers, called any large amount of attention your direction, or insisted everything be done your way. In a sense, one need not be recognized to be recognized. Being a good team member and doing what is expected of you can often go unnoticed. But at least for this moment, we note.

267. A. W. L. Much like your colleague N., you are one of those steady workhorse students/lab members from whom you here no grumbling and to whom you can confidently assign tasks. These are key to success within most biomedical engineering laboratories. May you find success “out there” as you have here.

268. Z. S. Front and center to every class I can recall. That’s a commitment that is existential to a person. It reflects something “of their character”. Discipline, regularity, attention. May you continue to hone what you hone.

269. E. Z. My primary E. (though I suppose I could just as easily tell the same thing to the E. in my next class), you have shown up, done what you’ve been asked, and I never heard you grumble about a thing. For at least these reasons and likely for more, you shall continue to be my primary E.

270. J. C. Along with T., you formed the piano counterpoint to the forte point of J. and B. in your group. As I believe a dynamic range is important for the getting done of a great many things, I believe such a quiet/reserved contribution is significant even if it is not boisterous.

271. L. E. Along with Jack, the last in the lab, the last in the room, the last man standing. And doing those curls long enough to get yours arms around the swole wide world. Determination and patience gets a person far in this world. I suspect you already know this, even if you never said the words aloud.

272. A. S. J. We began this class with Don affirming your ping pong skills. It ends here with me here affirming your laboratory skills. A man of many talents and few boasts, I have seen every team you’ve been on improve. May that continue to be true.

273. T. A. L. In certain folks you can see a certain interest in certain subjects. If you don’t mind my opining, you appear to have really taken to much of what this class is about. For that I’m glad and hope you are too.

274. A. J. M. I’m glad the windy city blew you our direction. From what I’ve heard you’ve been an excellent to every team you’ve joined. May you continue to be excellent.

275. D. M. R. Inside and outside of the classroom you have proven reasonable and personable, qualities we all hope to find in a lab partner. Here’s hoping that in between pizza house networking and animal experiments you find time to be even more reasonable and personable. If possible, try.

276. J. H. S. I hope to have helped you conceptualize your out-of-class research project in terms both comprehensible and comprehensive. From what I’ve heard through the grape vine your PI is happy with your work on this front and I can’t help but to indulge vicariously in the glory. And you’ve much to indirectly be glorious about.

277. J. A. S. You have provided great sideline insight throughout the semester and explained your team’s rationale for your experiment well. May you continue to offer such insight and rationalize so well.

278. J. M. S. You’ve added to our in-class discussions, made sure this class ran administratively half as well as it did by regularly assessing it before class began, and asked me more than one tough question (often in the form of a “this or that” dilemma). May you continue to do much and continue to do more.

279. R. T.  I bestow upon you the Best Dressed Award for consistently coming into lab in your best suits. I like the confidence of a man entering experimental realms gussied. Polish, here as elsewhere, pays.

280. R. V. If I did nothing else in this class but ensure that your pencil was safely returned to you, I can say I have done something worthwhile here. Perhaps not worth the quarter of a million dollars we all collectively paid to make it happen, but still worth a good deal to you and me. I am happy that we got you your pencil back and to have had you in the class in the first place.

281. N. W. As one of the people I know to be primarily responsible for causing me to smell for the first time in my entire life the scent of the bones steeping in blood. It’s among the most metal things I’ve experience all semester. Thank you for that, sorry for the smell. Hope you were able to scrub it off yourself.

282. M. E. W. I’m sorry to say that it took as long as last week for me to finally pin down that you prefer M. to M. I wish I had know that sooner, which is a roundabout way of saying I wish I had gotten to know you sooner, which is a roundabout way of saying we enjoyed having you here in class. May I not be the last to say it.

283. S. D. Sorry we won’t get a chance to extend our research relationship next year. All the same, I hope to have had some positive influence on your character here. May your research be the better for your time here.

284. E. F. You are consistent participant in our laboratory exercises and seem much appreciated by your team mates. May you continue to be consistently appreciated by the teams of which you are a part.

285. A. R. H. Before I knew you, you had broken both of your arms. As I got to know you, you reasoned through your (and many others!) biomedical engineering identity (semi-)crisis. After I’ve known you, after this, you will know how to conduct biomedical engineering experiments with your very own arms. I’m not trying to inflate this class or this subject matter as anything more than it is, but healing the damaged, empowering the knowledgeable, that’s pretty good.

286. G. M. While you weren’t much for the in-class dialogue type, I felt you and I conversed in real and substantive ways in the cracks of this class (a few words by the benchtop, a reasoning through of a situation). And that’s plenty.

287. C. N. There is, of course, a special place in my heart for those people who genuinely enjoy and perhaps overenjoy circuits and their workings. As just such person who has wormed their way to such a special place, I am glad that you and your electrical ilk in this class have helped us all improve our circuits understanding. For at least that, thank you.

288. J. H. Yours is a special case as you are both in this class, in 458 and in a teaching class all at once. That strikes me as a lot of plates to be spinning all at once, but I haven’t seen you drop one. Keep spinning what you have to and making it look easy.

289. C. A. P. I hate to single out your foreign roots as cause for comment, but you have said one of those things that just rings and rings and rings in my head. And that was that “everything in America is awesome” to which I cannot help but feel an assured “you’re goddamned right it is.” Everything in America is awesome and I hope that has included your time in this class and your time in the next. Thank you and stay awesome.

290. R. K. Somewhere in the Memorabilia of Xenophon (~3.12), we hear Socrates insisting that one ought to keep fit the body for the good of the State and for the good of one’s self because: “We regret that we should grow old from neglect before seeing oneself in the fullest bodily state one might attain.” Let us here, as elsewhere, be mind of Socrates and let us not go to our graves without knowing the fullness of our bodies. And that, in your case, now includes, thanks to this class, being able to life 15 whole pounds. Repeatedly.

291. J. S. I suspect I’ll see you in that nook a time or two and hence this is no goodbye. Still, I am happy to have made your acquaintance and look forward to much pleasant small talk as I go to the printer.

292. M. A. You were a late and tenuous addition to this class. Yet, as each of your team members can attest, we were glad to have you. Thank you for joining us.

That was it. That was us. That was the class. And while I hope you have all gotten something significant out of it, I want again reiterate the importance of just such a classroom experience in your budding biomedical engineering careers.

You need to know how to do things. To do that, you need to know how to test things. To do that, you need to know how to interpret those tests. To do that, you need to sit in a room with a bunch of smart people and try to figure it out together. We have, thus far, found no better way of doing it.

Some rightly note that such a process at times can be boring. However, I think boredom can be a great thing. Some of the best thinking I’ve ever done, best ideas I’ve ever come up with, best words I’ve ever put together, have been in those long – excruciatingly long – moments where I’ve been bored through and through. The thing about most of the people who wind up stepping foot into any kind of biomedical research environment is that they are something of what you might call “self starters”. To get to this point in this class in this program in this University in this country at this time was a mixture of the tides and currents of history and presence. At the very least, you had to initiate a few of the steps that proceeded the one that led you here. You’ve got something inside you and it gets really hungry when it’s bored. And that existential hunger your body naturally curls in at during my longer, more sermon-like lectures, is good for your intellectual development. In the end, you have to want it. Those who stay – even while bored – will be champions.

With that, I thank you for the opportunity to dismiss this class one final time. May each of you do as you’ve done, only better from here on out. I hope you all do well on your fast-approaching poster presentations and on your ever-to-the-horizon journeys. I’ve done what I’ve can for you here and I trust that you can do more. Good luck.