For Larry McIntire, biomedical engineering is where new discoveries get turned into products that help people.
It’s a field that reaches across subjects—biology, chemistry, medicine—and one that often brings scientists nose-to-nose with regulatory agencies like the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
“We have a lot of interest because of devices, therapeutics, and drugs, with things like how the FDA runs and how it runs approval processes for various types of things, which can be quite different depending on whether it’s a device or a cell or a chemical,” said McIntire, the chair emeritus of the Wallace Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech—a joint venture with nearby Emory University in Atlanta. “It’s mostly public policy that controls exactly how that happens.”
The mechanics of those processes are part of what got him interested in how science and government intersect, and part of what got him more involved with AAAS. In addition to his post at Georgia Tech, McIntire is the current chair of the AAAS Section M (Engineering)—one of 24 Sections within the organization that advise the leadership on public issues related to their disciplines.
“I think it’s important that scientists and engineers have a real voice in Washington, where all these decisions are made,” McIntire said.
For example, as his field has advanced, there has been a boom in what McIntire calls “combination products”—a combination of cellular and non-cellular elements, like a replacement body part in which tissues grow over an artificial scaffold.
“They aren’t chemicals, like a drug, and they aren’t devices, like a heart valve,” McIntire said. “It has been very difficult for the FDA to know how to handle that. We’re working with the various societies, including AAAS, trying to help the FDA develop a way of rationally evaluating these combination products so they can actually get through the process in a way that's still safe for the patients, but not extremely long.”
AAAS also hopes to raise interest in science, technology and engineering among grade-school students, and McIntire said engineering—and biomedical engineering in particular—is a great way to do that. Biomedical engineering is among the fastest-growing undergraduate majors and a booming job market.
“It’s something they can see, that they can relate to directly. And I think that’s reflected in the enrollments,” he said.
McIntire earned a Ph.D. in chemical engineering from Princeton University in 1970, but soon found himself studying cardiovascular-related applications of the field at Rice University, in Houston. He was a co-founder and first chair of the biomedical engineering department at Rice, where the first artificial hearts were developed in the 1980s.
He moved to Atlanta in 2003, as Georgia Tech and Emory were ramping up their recently founded biomedical engineering program. He is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and was named an AAAS Fellow in 1998.
In an age where some of humanity’s biggest crises have deep technical and scientific roots—climate change, for example, or the recent Ebola epidemic in West Africa—McIntire said AAAS members need to be engaged with the issues that touch on their disciplines.
“The survival of being the leading country for science and engineering and technology depends on the support of the public, and I think we need to be able to convince the public that what we’re doing is exciting and vital,” he said.
“If you don’t understand the science at all, your children are at the mercy of politicians—and that’s not good,” he added.