Bioengineering: McGill’s Newest Program

By Celia Hameury

Everyone has heard of McGill’s mechanical, civil, chemical, mining or electrical and software engineering programs. Most were founded over fifty years ago, and are now well established departments – some are even over a hundred years old. McGill’s newest engineering program, bioengineering, is just a baby in comparison.

Initially established as a graduate program in 2012, bioengineering only joined the undergraduate program list four years later. In Fall 2016, McGill welcomed its first cohort of bioengineering undergraduate students. At the time, the head count was low, with just over 30 students, and the small department’s curriculum was far from finalized. The faculty included only nine members and 14 associate members. Three years later, the bioengineering student body has more than tripled in size and official offices have been added to the third floor of McConnel, but the program remains somewhat hazy.

Moreover, the definition of bioengineering and what it entails is largely ignored by most other engineers, and even by bioengineers themselves. How it differs from biomedical, or even bioresource engineering, is confusing to many. This is because the three fields are very closely linked. By definition, bioengineering, or biological engineering, is a new engineering discipline based in life sciences, which applies engineering principles to problems involving biological systems. Bioengineering is a broader field than biomedical engineering, which only deals with the medical applications of engineering. At McGill, biomedical engineering only exists a graduate program, or an undergraduate minor. Similarly, bioengineering includes environmental aspects, closely linking it to the bioresource engineering program based at MacDonald Campus.The bioengineering program at McGill offers three streams, each with specific required courses. Students must choose their stream after U1. The first stream deals with biological materials and mechanics, mostly studying the mechanics of biological systems. It involves physics and mechanical engineering courses as well as materials courses. This stream aims to use biological systems as inspiration for new synthetic materials. Stream 2 is Biomolecular and Cellular Engineering. As the name suggests, this stream is revolves around molecular and cell biology. Stream 2 teaches students how to design new systems which exploit the mechanisms of cells and molecular level biological systems. The last stream, called Biomedical, Diagnostics and High Throughput Screening Engineering, studies the techniques by which biological systems are analyzed. This includes imaging and other biomedical devices. This stream is perhaps the closest to biomedical engineering, but includes electrical engineering and nanotechnology courses. Initially, McGill intended on offering a fourth stream which would focus on bioinformatics, which is the study of using biological systems to store information and perform computations. However, after toying with this idea for a year, the idea of a fourth stream was abandoned, and the department settled on three. Even so, the department of bioengineering is more diverse than any other in the faculty, including 17 non-departmental course from departments as diverse as biochemistry to civil engineering to physics, compared to only nine required departmental courses.

To many students, however, the diversity is precisely what drew them to the bioengineering program. “I chose bioengineering because of its flexibility. It allows you to explore different facets of science and engineering and be exposed to interesting interfaces between different disciplines,” Kenji Marshall, editor-in-chief of the Plumber’s Ledger and bioengineering U1 student, stated. “I didn’t want to enter biology because I didn’t want to stop taking math/physics courses, and I didn’t want to enter a different engineering [where I would have to] stop taking biology courses,” Hope Kelly, bioengineering U3 representative, added. The great variety in research conducted by the bioengineering faculty is the highlight of the department. Indeed, the department’s research areas include tissue engineering, information processing and storage in biological systems, and microfluidics, among others. The opportunity to study many different aspects of science and apply them to solving real world problems is exciting enough to outweigh the department’s other shortcomings, since like any nascent department, bioengineering is not without faults. The most prominent one is inevitably the lack of organization in the courses and curriculum. Professors are not always sure of how much students already know about a particular subject. “Since profs don’t really know where we stand in terms of our knowledge, some classes are very basic, whereas some are very hard and [fast paced],” Ali Najmaldin, U2, explained. To some, however, this does present some advantages. Because of its small size, the bioengineering department can listen to the student’s complaints and alter the department according to their suggestions. “We know that we’re heard even when things might not be up to our expectations. I like that very much about the department. Things are not set in stone. There’s a lot of room for improvement, and we feel like we can make a difference to the department,” Tobi Olasubulumi expressed. Tobi is a U2 student and VP external for the Bioengineering Student Society (BUSS). Beyond organizational concerns, however, students worry about their futures. Bioengineering has yet to receive full accreditation from the Quebec Order of Engineers, which means that graduating students may struggle to find work in engineering positions. While the program will be evaluated in 2019, and should receive accreditation before its first cohort of students graduates, many still express concerns about finding employment. “Employers generally do not know of this program and do not know what skills graduates of a “McGill Bioengineering Undergraduate Program” would possess,” Brenda Shen, a U1 bioengineering student and writer for the Plumber’s Ledger, said.

At three years old, the McGill Bioengineering department remains ambiguous and far from finalized. Yet as the students, professors and lecturers learn from each passing year, they continue to shape the department, building it into a department that will one day be as famous as McGill’s other engineering programs. “It’s going to be a great department someday,” Tobi said. “The greatest!”