It is no secret that engineering is currently one of the top ranked jobs in the world today. An engineering degree is respected, admired, and well-known for providing job security and a level of comfortable, lucrative living. Yet engineering is meant to be so much more than merely a fancy job title. The hours spent burning the midnight oil studying difficult course material over the years, the late nights spent struggling through seemingly impossible problem sets, and the energy poured into lab time creating and designing inventive projects are not about reaching the end goal of merely becoming an engineer, but about what one chooses to do with this engineering knowledge once they achieve the title. Being an engineer means having the skill-set and creativity to recognize and solve problems, so along with this gift comes the necessary duty of using this power for the betterment of society. Engineers, in essence, possess all the tools needed to do amazing things, and are challenged therefore to be game-changers. While indeed fun, engineering should not be a self-centric endeavor. There are tremendous gaps in human advancement worldwide – lack of sanitation and clean drinking water, unsafe structural buildings, disease, and pollution are just a few examples of the countless grave problems facing our world. Engineers are special in that we are not only capable of seeing these issues, but of fixing them by pinpointing a need and designing a solution.
One of my favorite things about being in Biomedical Engineering is witnessing the tangible effects of biomedical devices on the lives of so many patients. The trans-catheter heart valve designed by Edwards LifeSciences, for example, serves thousands around the world and is revolutionary in providing non-invasive surgery to replace failing heart tissue. Ideas literally seem to leap from the page; an idea one day only a blueprint can become a life-saving miracle the next. It is also exciting to see the way engineering disciplines come together to create working solutions, which is seen in projects like the one conducted by an incredible group called Enabling the Future that has released several software files for basic 3D-printable prosthetic hands. In collaboration with the Global Medical Trainer’s chapter at USC, the 3D4E Printing Club here on campus has championed this cause, commissioning students to print the parts for these hands, which have now been assembled and distributed around the world to people in Haiti, Syria, and Panama. We even had the opportunity to work with the local Los Angeles Children’s Hospital. This semester I have been enormously blessed to work with five-year-old Tchwin Tchwin, a disabled child born with a stunted hand. After taking his measurements and meeting with his family, I have worked to 3D print a prosthetic hand to match his proportions, which will provide him with improved mobility in his stunted left hand. It is mind-blowing to think that a 3D printer, which we often use in the lab to print neat designs recreationally, can make a device that will drastically improve a child’s quality of life. We needed only see the smile on Tchwin Tchwin’s face when he saw the parts for his new hand to know that we were making a powerful difference in his life.
As an engineer, it is hugely important to get out in the world and see the need firsthand. Over Spring Break, I had the opportunity to travel to Riobamba, Ecuador where I worked in a Medlife mobile clinic. The cities of Ecuador much resemble other South American gems, rich in culture, delicious food, and general gaiety. Upon leaving the city limits, however, it becomes clear that the relative comfort of the city is merely an illusion. Our ramshackle tour bus made the perilous trek into the Andean foothills, where our USC team provided medical care in the local communities of La Merced and San Bernardo. We helped with equipment set up, assisted the local Medlife doctors, and spent time working with countless patients.
The people we met astounded, grieved, blessed, and humbled us all at the same time. Walking miles through the biting cold to reach our small clinic, dozens of locals arrived throughout each day, wearing bright traditional clothing and shoes worn completely through the soles, if they even had shoes at all. The elderly hobbled in painstaking slowness, carrying chronic diseases like severe arthritis, urinary and fungal infections, and bronchitis that they had been harboring for decades but for which they had never been able to afford treatment. The women were burdened with several kinds of vaginal infections, and many also showed signs of cervical cancer. Filthy drinking water, the absence of proper waste disposal, and lack of general sanitation, including lack of toilet paper in most cases, contributed to a wide range of medical complications often developed from a young age. The medications we had available were relatively simple; we had only general antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, and various minor remedies to treat parasites, diarrhea, and different types of pain. Most of the people we met with had never even seen ibuprofen before. It baffled me how a medication so simple, one we take in America on a weekly basis, was so novel and powerful in these communities. Incredibly, this small community in Ecuador is only a glimpse of the greater need around the world. The amazing thing is that we need not even look past our own country, or even our own city, to see this glaring need for engineering advancement.
Ultimately I believe engineering is about more than just math or science or a good career. It is worth the difficult road it takes to get there because becoming an engineer means having the opportunity to make an extraordinary difference while having a lot of fun doing so. Every engineer has the potential to be involved in designing something that can radically improve our world in small or large ways. We need only the courage to get off the bench and jump in the game to give it all we’ve got. Choosing engineering means choosing to be presented with the challenge of doing something phenomenal. So now we have to ask ourselves: are we up for the challenge?
Check out this neat link to learn more about the Enabling the Future Prosthetic Hands Project and how you can get involved!