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09 Jul

Bringing Translational Research to the Online Classroom

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Teaching relevant coursework is important for every graduate degree, but for online programs, Colin Drummond believes it offers an opportunity for a more flexible and valuable learning experience.

At Case Western Reserve University, Drummond is a professor and assistant chair in the Department of Bioengineering and associate professor in the Department of Orthopedics and Sports Medicine at University Hospitals. Drummond was most recently the faculty director for the CWRU’s Master of Engineering and Management program. He also teaches the Principles of Medical Device Design in its Online Master of Science in Biomedical Engineering.

Outside of class, his own work focuses on the practical application of simulation and healthcare information technology to support clinical decision-making. Below, he discusses translational research, graduate programs and how industries have changed.

What course do you teach in the online program? What do you like about teaching online students?

The course, EBME 471: Principles of Medical Device Design and Innovation, is actually based on the Stanford Biodesign process, so my primary focus on the academic side at Case Western Reserve has a lot to do with translational research and those subjects where we translate technology into the marketplace. This course fits that mold very closely.

That's my domain of interest because I spent 20 years in the industry before coming to Case Western Reserve in 2008. My focus is on translational activities versus basic research, which is creating new knowledge. I'm in the domain where we apply the knowledge, though that's not necessarily been the province of academia as we think of it. Increasingly across the country, translating knowledge into practice is something that's very appealing.

The students seem to respond to these design-oriented courses and project-based courses. We've had students that are deployed around the world. We say, "Find a project that is mutually beneficial not only for the course, but that might also satisfy an employer need." The employers like that because the relevance of the course is that much greater. We offer the students the opportunity to pick their own project, and we craft it to fit the academic requirements for accreditation. We allow them to pick a project that they'll have an interest in and, like I said, is mutually beneficial.

As an instructor, you just don't want to give a lecture and then disappear. It's nice to know that the students are engaged. I've done remote learning since 2013, so I've been at this a long time. You have to have a certain degree of flexibility within the rules, and when students have a sense that they're in control, they're with you in the learning. It's a collective learning experience and they like that.

When we have adult learners, they're less concerned about the degree and they're more interested in the value of what's going on in the class, what value does the course deliver. Teaching online challenges you to work harder. It challenges you to think in new ways. What are we trying to accomplish? There are many different ways to learn.

I’ve spoken with Professor Umut Gurkan about the close ties between biomedical engineers and healthcare professionals in nursing and similar fields. What are your thoughts on that relationship? Why is it so critical for translational research?

Umut Gurkan has done a fantastic job with translating technology into the market. He's got a lot of success. So it's really interesting when people say, "What are your thoughts about the relationship?"

One of the favourable aspects of being involved in translational research for so long is that, almost by default, we reach out to other fields like nursing, physical therapy and occupational therapy. For all of these different projects, if you include the stakeholders who are ultimately either responsible for care or the last mile of care, you have to reach out. It doesn't mean it's easy. I'll never forget the time I was working with an anesthesiologist at a large hospital, and I said, "You know, I feel bad that I only understand about 20% of what you talk about." And, he said, "Well, that's okay, I only understand about 20% of what you do." What that says is that good teams are not in each other's backyard. It's actually about complementary skills that are aligned with the mission.

I work across boundaries all the time, and I find it odd when people are isolated. You really have to begin with the end in mind. When we talk about the application of knowledge or the translation of knowledge, it's just in the DNA that you've got to reach across boundaries. The challenge for a lot of people is that we don't train students to say, "I don't know." We don't train students on the art of asking questions. We don’t say, "Here's some information, I'm going to you a quiz and I'm going to rate you on that response."

That's a bit of a dated perspective. The goal through these courses is to enhance competencies and critical thinking skills, and then, enable students to deal with ambiguity. If they're going to be hired by a company, you don't hire them to solve the problems you know have solutions. You're hiring them for problems that are new and ambiguous. I think the art of asking questions becomes central to this process of translational research.

What are recent research projects you’ve worked on? Why is that work valuable?

The one project is actually medication management for isolated polypharmacy patients. Depending on where they are, whether it's home care, palliative care, or hospice, senior citizens can have multiple, often chronic or acute, conditions or comorbidities. They could be taking as many as a dozen different medications.

The problem is not that they're taking, say, 10 medications but what we call the PRN, pro re nata. The medications you can take when you have a need. For instance, you may have a prescription for an anxiety medication, like Ativan. You're able to take that when you feel you need it, but no more frequently than every four hours. If you have multiple medications with this PRN or on-demand medication management schedule, there could be contraindications and problems.

The problem is aggravated when you're isolated and you just don't have anybody to talk to or compare with. Even if you're not isolated, it's often a family member who's there to help and they don't understand this either. One of the projects we're looking at is how we can have a conversational agent assist. A sort of smart speaker system that’s not diagnostic, but the prescriptions are loaded into the machine. It just listens to what somebody's saying, and it can say, "Well, you took your Ativan an hour ago, are you sure that's what you want to do?"

It's been a fascinating project because it involves voice analysis. It involves working with nurses and working with people who provide care in facilities. That's crossing a lot of boundaries. That's one project that I have a lot of passion for. You hear a lot about machine learning and AI. I guess there's a lot of hype about it, but I believe this is a case where we can use that in a practical way.

In your opinion, what makes Case Western Reserve’s online master’s programs stand out?

Some programs are very rigid. You will do X, Y and Z, and that's it. I think others are very, very loose, and then you wonder, "Whoa, is there a common denominator of a competency that emerges?" I think that Case Western Reserve, in my opinion, has a nice balance.

We know there are certain competencies they'll need, but then also at the same time, we offer some latitude so the student can customize it and own it.

There are a lot of stereotypes about what your standard engineering program is like, and from talking to you and Professor Gerken, you both have a much more holistic view of what engineering research is and can be.

I don't want to get too philosophical, but the university is not a vocational school. In my opinion, the university is a place where, believe it or not, it's to make better citizens.

People who can make decisions in their discipline. People who can lead. People who can understand contemporary issues and be able to manage it. With technology, with privacy, with legal, the decisions are not easy and they're not straightforward. Anybody can get a job, but in terms of crafting a career where you can refine your competencies and then align those competencies with the need of the market, that's the role of the university.

It has to be more holistic than you took classes, you made the credit requirements, and you leave. Quite frankly, if it didn't frustrate you and change you, then what was the point of going, you know?

You have to manage your career. You have to manage the growth of your competencies. In the old days, companies used to manage your career: Those days are gone. They're not going to do it for you. They'll hire the competency they need. They don't grow from within. It's just not the way it's done, and that's the new economy. It's about investing in yourself, building your competencies and leaving it up to you.

Transform your future with Case Western Reserve.

At CWRU, find the cutting-edge technical knowledge and leadership skills to take charge of your career. Learn more about our four online graduate programs: Master of Engineering, Master of Science in Biomedical Engineering, Master of Science in Mechanical Engineering and Master of Science in Systems and Control Engineering.