Helping students navigate a gulf between motivation and inaction

Jun 03, 2013


Dr. Muhammad Zaman, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Departments of Biomedical Engineering and Medicine, Boston University


From Mukuyu Basic Middle School in Mazabuka, Zambia, to Boston University in Massachusetts, United States, all teachers want to see their students thrive -- and use their knowledge to make the world a better place.



Every year, at this time, I get very emotional. As a teacher nothing gives me more joy than seeing my students walk up to that podium and get their hard earned diplomas.  The energy in their stride tells the world that they are ready to climb any dreadful mountain of challenge, failure, and frustration. The raw optimism of the speeches, original or recycled, and a healthy dose of “go change the world” get me really pumped up about doing just that. Yet, I also worry at this time every year. Are we really doing our bit to enable students to change the world?

We give our students plenty of debt, but do we give our students the tools to break the barriers of status quo? While I am certain that the students today are certainly willing to tackle “impossible” problems, I am concerned that they don't know about the problems that have made life impossible for hundreds of millions. Solving these problems will affect not just those in New York but also New Guinea.

Biomedical engineers are a strange and an eclectic bunch. Some get motivated by the fundamental questions, some are interested in creating the next best technology for the biggest health challenges, and some want to see their technologies translated into the field, today. There is no shortage of health problems in the world, and some have every single criterion to get the heart of a good old nerdy biomedical engineer pumping. Pneumonia is at the top of that list. There are challenges in finding new and more precise biomarkers, questions about making better diagnostics and above all opportunities to save countless lives in a very, very short time. But somehow we are not telling our students the pneumonia story. We are not encouraging them to create solutions, at the fundamental or applied level, about the leading killers of children around the world. I am not arguing that everyone should be looking at solutions to solve the pneumonia challenge, but what I am arguing is that we are not doing a good enough job in motivating our students about a problem that is within our reach, that has all the essential ingredients of a complex yet solvable problem.

The problem on our end starts with awareness. I have asked over 500 students, what is the number 1 killer of children in the world? They start with HIV, malaria, malnutrition -no one has ever gotten this question right.  Once I show them the data, they are amazed, appalled, and at the same time intrigued about why we still have this problem, and why kids from Congo to Pakistan to Papua New Guinea die of such a preventable disease.

Second, students follow the paths of their teachers and mentors in choosing projects and research topics, but there is very little research activity among my colleagues in addressing this global challenge. Part of it lies in few funding opportunities and part is rooted in the same lack of awareness. There are research grants out there, somewhere, but the researchers are unaware of them, or the grants come with bureaucratic hoops that many do not consider worth their time to apply.

Finally, the very few students, who by sheer determination, work on this problem and come up with a new tool or solution find new and often fatal problems in raising capital in countries with no insurance and little venture capital activity. Lack of mentorship does not make this problem particularly easy either.

The deadly cocktail of these problems in our teaching, research, and mentorship means that our students may never tackle the problem that is begging for their attention. Our best resource—the minds and passion of our most gifted students—is not being applied to diagnose, manage, and stop a preventable disease before it takes the lives of another million children this year.

Despite all of this, I am optimistic because the conversation has started in the corridors, classrooms, and labs. More importantly, it has started on the Twitters, Facebooks, and Tumblrs of the world. We just need to sustain it. This is the season to celebrate both the past and the future. The students have earned their diplomas and are ready to bend the arc of the future towards a healthier world. We, as teachers and mentors, will find them to be fully capable of doing their part, if we are ready to do ours.