Fostering innovation by connecting engineering and medical students

A new paper from researchers at NYU Tandon School of Engineering and the NYU Grossman School of Medicine explores how interdisciplinary programs connecting medical and engineering education may foster innovation and prepare students in both disciplines for more successful careers. 

The paper, published in the Technology and Innovation journal of the National Academy of Inventors, describes initiatives at NYU as a case study, along with similar programs at Johns Hopkins University, Stanford University, Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

NYU Tandon and Grossman have partnered on educational programs for about a decade. But for most of this time, the skill-sharing only went in one direction, explained lead author John-Ross Rizzo, a rehabilitation medicine specialist and professor at both schools. “It dawned on us that we spend a ton of time bringing engineers to the medical school, but almost zero time trying to get our doctors immersed in the engineering world,” Rizzo said.

By bringing medical students to the engineering field, as NYU has done in recent years, educators can enable a shared understanding of engineering concepts that contributes to more effective problem-solving, Rizzo and his colleagues argue. Clinicians and engineers are more capable of collaboration if they speak each other’s languages; new innovations that result from these partnerships may be better set up for long-term success.

Rizzo compared this interdisciplinary learning to earning belts in martial arts. A medical student might not become a “black belt in computer science,” but might learn enough for a “yellow belt” — a lower level of understanding, but enough to enable collaboration with the true experts. “We’re creating a smarter generation of students,” Rizzo said.

One way NYU students may gain this expertise is through participation in the NYU HealthTech Transformer Challenge, which pairs engineers and clinicians to work on “healthcare’s most pressing problems.” Finalists from the program have won funding from NYU and other sources to pursue their ideas at new startups. Other challenges and grant-funded research projects at NYU Tandon and Grossman have allowed graduate students to receive co-advising from engineering and medical professors.

The researchers also discussed barriers to setting up these interdisciplinary programs. Early initiatives may require extensive effort, including dedicated advocacy to bring different school administrators on board. It may be especially tough to convince medical school leaders to devote student time to engineering work outside their typical course load. Part of the challenge is a lack of data: while NYU and similar programs have produced some clear success stories among individual students and startups, universities are not tracking their results in a comprehensive manner.

In the new paper, Rizzo and colleagues share lessons from NYU’s leadership in this interdisciplinary space and from programs at other institutions. The findings may provide inspiration for more universities to consider connecting medicine and engineering education. “I think this is a trend we’ll hear more about over the next decade,” Rizzo said.