Biomedical engineer Professor Karen Reynolds, who designed her first mechanical device, a water pump, at the age of six, this month received Engineering Australia’s highest accolade by winning the 2010 Professional Engineer of the Year in South Australia.
Professor Reynolds initially studied physics at Oxford University and gained a PhD, but then followed her early ambition by moving into an academic career in biomedical engineering at Leicester University. She came to Flinders University in 1997 and has since inspired a generation of biomedical engineers who enrolled in Australia’s first undergraduate course in the specialised field.
Professor Reynolds still finds that biomedical engineering is not well understood as a field of study and research.
“Biomedical engineering is basically the point at which engineering overlaps with medicine and life sciences. It supports the development of the tools that doctors use – the devices, the instrumentation and the monitors that you find in a hospital or a surgery,” Professor Reynolds said.
“Those tools and devices range from implants, replacement hip and knee joints and artificial heart valves through to monitoring devices that make sense of the body’s information and rehabilitative and assistive technologies,” she said.
Professor Reynolds said that innovation in the field “is driven both by need and new thinking and it is vital to maintain strong, collaborative links with clinicians who can identify where there might be gaps in technologies and limitations in existing devices.”
“The challenge in this field is that no matter how much we think we understand the human body, it is a complex and dynamic system and there is so much that is still unknown,” Professor Reynolds said.
In the future, Professor Reynolds sees biomedical engineering combining with the frontier technologies to be found in nanotechnology and human tissue technology.
“It is really important that the people in this field collaborate with the physicists, the chemists and the clinicians to work together and contribute the parts of the puzzle with which they are most familiar,” she said.
Professor Reynolds draws on her own experience to describe why students might consider study and a career in the field.
“Biomedical engineering appealed to me because it was a blend of the hardcore, get-your-hands-dirty sort of engineering, and electronics with a human dimension – it is the potential to achieve something for the public good that is so exciting,” Professor Reynolds said.
It is a long way from designing water pumps at the age of six but Professor Reynolds retains her passion for a rapidly developing field that is set to make a substantial difference to society.