Medical Technology of the Future – Engineers in Operating Room Scrubs

Trained to fashion technical solutions for clinical challenges: Graduates of the Master’s in Biomedical Engineering, a postgraduate program of the University of Bern and the Bern University of Applied Sciences and the associated doctoral program celebrate the tenth anniversary of their BME Alumni Association.

The Master’s in Biomedical Engineering of the University of Bern in cooperation with the Bern University of Applied Sciences is unique worldwide as an engineering post-graduate qualification delivered in a medical school. The appeal of this course design is obvious: a specialist, fully English language degree embedded in the medical faculty exposes students to the realism of unmet clinical needs as the driver for disruptive medical technology concepts. Instead of developing "perfect" technological solutions from the engineering imagination that fall apart on touch with clinical reality, the course teaches how to put clinical considerations first. Students will graduate with detailed knowledge of anatomy, physiology and clinical practice as well as an understanding of the challenges of regulatory, ethical and commercial barriers to entry for new discoveries in medical technology. Combine this with high-quality technical teaching and the BME program has turned out over 400 well-rounded graduates since 2006, capable of identifying a clinical challenge before even contemplating a technical solution. Alumni are sought out by other globally leading academic institutions for research or are attractive to industry, because BME Master’s graduates have the confidence of actual clinical experience.

Klinische Expertise für technologische Lösungen im OP-Saal: Tests an einem orthopädischen Modell. Bild: Adrian Moser.
Technology solutions for the clinic that are informed by the clinic: Tests using orthopedic models. Photo: Adrian Moser.

In a recent address to prospective students of the BME program the Vice-Rector for Research Unibe, Prof. Dr. Daniel Candinas described life as a BME Master’s student: "As a BME Master’s student you will be expected to be in the lab to undertake fundamental, scientific research work as much as be in the operating room in scrubs speaking to patients and doctors to accompany live procedures or be suited and booted to present your work to companies or investors."

Zum zweijährigen Studiengang gehören auch praktische Arbeiten im Labor. Bild: Adrian Moser.
The two-year degree includes a thesis project based on experimental work. Photo: Adrian Moser.

The "Medical Turing Test"

"Every PhD student in our Biomedical Engineering doctoral program has to pass our Medical Turing Test", jokes Prof. Dr.-Ing. Stefan Weber, Director of the ARTORG Center for Biomedical Engineering.  Like its cousin the classic Turing Test faithful impersonation is the essence of the BME Medical Turing Test. Noted mathematician Alan Turing conceived of his self-titled test to determine the sophistication of an artificial intelligence system. A volunteer would have a dialogue through a computer. Unbeknownst to the volunteer the opposite would be an artificial intelligence system and if ever the interaction would be indistinguishable from a human, the artificial intelligence system would pass the Turing Test. And although Stefan Weber speaks in jest, the idea of the BME Medical Turing Test is that doctoral students in Biomedical Engineering at the University of Bern are able to converse with a clinician for around 15 mins, without the opposite noticing that they are speaking to an "engineer" and not a fellow medic.  The humorous nature of this concept however has a very serious message. Future Biomedical Engineering experts must have the tools to consider clinical and technical priorities in equal measure, so solutions can bring true improvements to patient care.

"I came back to Bern"

Prabitha is a woman of the first hour. She is an alumnus of the first cohort of the Master’s in Biomedical Engineering, graduating in 2008. She is also an excellent example of the varied backgrounds that have access to the BME degree, entering the course with a B.Tech. engineering degree in Computer Science from Mangalore University, India.  "I had come to Switzerland through a professional appointment.  But after 10 years in the software industry my heart wasn’t in it and I was looking for new challenges. I was always interested in medical technology, and could see that the work of doctors was becoming more and more digital. But I knew to be able to enter into that domain, I needed to acquire specialist medical technology knowledge." So Prabitha identified the BME program in Bern and was impressed that it was being run in a medical faculty.

Dr. Prabitha Urwyler-Harischandra (Mitte) ist jetzt selber BME-Dozentin. Bild: Adrian Moser.
BME Master’s graduate Dr. Prabitha Urwyler-Harischandra (middle) is herself a lecturer on the course now. Photo: Adrian Moser.

Following her graduation Prabitha joined the prestigious Paul Scherrer Institute and completed her PhD at the University of Basel in biosensors. "But I was keen to make another change and get back closer to the clinic, as my positive experience of the BME Master’s never left me, I came back to the ARTORG Center for Biomedical Engineering Research in the medical faculty of the University of Bern." The ARTORG is also where BME students carry out their thesis project and can go on to do their doctoral studies in one of the ten research groups of the Center. "I returned to Bern to build my own group in Healthy Ageing, Neurodegenerative and Brain Injury research. And now I have come full circle teaching on the BME and trying to encourage more women to join the program."

"The right choice for me"

Iwan is a very recent graduate of the BME Master’s and is now pursuing a doctorate in the use of ultrasound based surgical navigation and robotics in 3D key-hole liver surgery to facilitate operations on deeply embedded or hard to visualise tumours. "I find myself in the operating room with the hepatobiliary intervention team as much as in front of my computer programing", says Iwan.  It was a chance encounter with an orthopaedic surgeon during a trip around the world following his BSc in Computer Science from the University of Applied Science and Arts Lucerne that piqued Iwan’s interest. "The surgeon got very excited about all the computer science applications in medicine and surgery, which made me consider a Master’s with a medical focus. I compared the programs in Switzerland and Bern won it for me hands down, with it being in a medical faculty and an extremely clinical curriculum."

Dokorand Iwan Paolucci bei Kalibrierungsmessungen im Operationssaal. Bild: Pascale Tinguely.
BME PhD student Iwan Paolucci carrying out calibrations in a live operating room. Photo: Pascale Tinguely.

Iwan graduated with excellent grades and found it easy to decide to go on to doctoral studies that build on his Master’s thesis. "I was already on a roll and it was only just getting exciting in the clinic, so it was a good choice to make and I was offered a PhD project at the ARTORG in the Image Guided Therapy group."

BME Day 2019

The annual Biomedical Engineering Day held at the University of Bern is a great way to find out more about the Master’s in BME and meet the BME team to get in person advice and details. On the day faculty, current and former students answer questions and present course modules and activities. The event includes a live surgery video-feed from the operating room and presentations from industry as companies are also an integral part of BME Day. Exhibitors attend to connect with graduates they might like to hire. Spin-outs pitch their companies to showcase medical technology success stories that have been translated into the clinic and beyond.


Nathalie Matter is the Media Relations Editor for "Medicine and Healthcare" in the Communication and Marketing Team of the University of Bern.

Dr Usha Sarma is the Research Strategy Manager of the ARTORG Center for Biomedical Engineering, University of Bern.

Julia Spyra is Study Coordinator for the BME Master, University of Bern and has been organizing the BME Day since 2009.