Medical Engineering is revolutionising Healthcare through development of affordable medical devices, intelligent surgical tools, smart textiles, prosthesis, flexible electronics and stretchable sensors by exploiting engineering knowledge in soft materials.

Hritwick Banerjee, our next pathbreaker, Ph.D. Researcher at the Laboratory of Photonic Materials and Fiber Devices, Institute of Materials, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL), researches multi-material fibers for applications in surgery and medicine.

Hritwick talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about life altering experiences during his master’s that strengthened his resolve to pursue a career focused on biomedical and healthcare research.

For students, you don’t have to be part of the rat race, nor do you have to be a great competitor. You just need to have conviction in your vision to impact society in your own way.

Hritwick, tell us about Your background?

I hail from a humble, lower-middle-class family from a small Indian town (Jalpaiguri, West-Bengal). My upbringing made me aware of the ground realities of poverty and a poor healthcare system, as well as the societal need of my immediate surroundings. My father was a hobby theatre artist and my uncle a notable poet who helped me learn many facets of plays and the skill of constructive writing. These early experiences supported me enormously while preparing my research related manuscripts later in life.

It is said that primary education helps a man step out of his surroundings into the outer world. My mother served all her life for the wellbeing of our family. The lessons of the Shlokas taught by my grandparents from Shrimad Bhagavad-Gita still helps me in making decisions during tough times. For example: “Karmanye vadhikaraste Ma Phaleshu Kadachana, Ma Karma Phala Hetur Bhur Ma Te Sango Stv Akarmani” laid down a strong foundation to work to the best of our capabilities without worrying about the outcome from it. My primary education contributed immensely to my career and helped me achieve district position in debates, recitation, sports, quiz, painting, and many aspects of co-curricular activities.

Since my childhood, I have been fascinated by mechanics and physics around us. Thus, while choosing my undergraduate major, Engineering was an obvious choice. After graduation, I entered the corporate world with Wilo SE, one of the largest domestic, industrial pump manufacturing companies in the world, and was in charge of the electrical division for their turnkey project-Maharashtra Krishna Valley Development Corporation Tembhu Stage IA. These real field experiences in the hydro-pneumatic systems and control panels helped me hone my interpersonal and communication skills, and develop an unquenching thirst for greater academic pursuit.

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

I graduated with a Master’s Degree from the Dept. of Electrical Engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology, Gandhinagar (IIT GN). I am currently pursuing my Ph.D. at the Institute of Materials, École Polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL). 

I firmly believe that service for humanity with the aim of development of society can give an individual ultimate satisfaction like nothing else. During my final year of study at IIT Gandhinagar and IIT Kharagpur, I developed a strong passion for Biomedical Engineering and its allied fields. Driven by the vigour to get into the biomedical engineering realm, I defended a master’s dissertation titled “Frequency driven alteration in cellular morphology during ultrasound pulsing in a microfluidic confinement” in collaboration with the University of Oxford (Institute of Biomedical Engineering), UK.   

I’m currently working as a Ph.D. student at the Institute of Materials, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL) (2020-To date). Until recently, I was working as a Jr. Scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems (MPI-IS) (2019-20). I was a Sr. Research Engineer at the Department of Biomedical Engineering, National University of Singapore (NUS) (2016-19). Before these, I spent a brief stint as a Research Assistant at the Centre for Nano Science and Engineering (CeNSE) in the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore, India (2014-15).

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?

From my childhood, I was constantly being told that if I didn’t study hard, I would never get a ”Job”. During all those years, I usually told myself that I would do something different. I am usually not a great competitor who wins all the races. I love to keep to myself, away from the race of life. It was really hard for me as I had no idea as to what I wanted to do and how to do things differently. The only conviction I had was I will do something different in life and will never be trapped in the race. 

I consider myself above average and by no means a perfect scorer in exams. I struggled with the elementary style of memorising facts, feeding numbers, and then vomiting in the exams. Now I feel that I was dyslexic and had a really hard time mugging up facts for scoring well in exams. I loved dreaming and tried to decode the world with the laws of mechanics, physics, and mathematics. What perhaps made a difference is that I never stopped dreaming of bigger things in life. I was even bullied for being a small-town kid and started to feel that I am delusional and overly ambitious. I studied Engineering and like many others, followed the same route to earn a livelihood, but with no pleasure.

It was during my master’s study, when I went and stayed with one of my school friends who was suffering from skin cancer at the Tata Memorial Hospital, India that I saw patients of all ages (from eight to eighty) fighting against this deadly disease. I lived through their agonies which strengthened my life’s philosophy to devote myself to biomedical needs and healthcare research. I initiated my master’s research towards cancer cell deformation and its impact on downstream physiological pathways. During this time, I also developed a passion for drug delivery, therapeutic ultrasound, and its allied fields. For the very first time, I felt truly satisfied after successfully defending my master’s thesis and told myself, this is the only thing I would do throughout my research life.

I taught myself the basics of medical engineering and told myself that though I may not be a doctor or a medical practitioner by profession, I can still try and empower doctors by making better tools for surgery and medicine. That has shaped my career and personal goal to utilize engineering tools, and knowledge to foster significant breakthroughs in healthcare and improving quality of life as a frontier leader/scientist in the field of Biomedical Engineering at a reputed center/institute with world-class infrastructure and an ambiance conducive to research. All I want to do is to make products that would impact human health and improve quality of lives in general.

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

Though I was a neophyte, still, I followed my master’s thesis in cancer cell deformation and its impact on downstream physiological pathways. I redefined the status quo by receiving Dean’s special approval to use cell biology facilities in the Biotechnology Dept. at IIT Kharagpur, a sister institution located in a distant state. During this time, I collaborated with scientists from the University of Oxford (Institute of Biomedical Engineering), UK to obtain valuable suggestions for characterizing my custom-made ultrasound-cell piezoelectric setup.

During my stay at the Micro-Nano Fluidics Laboratory, Indian Institute of Science (IISc) (’14-’15), I worked on dual-mode sensing of biomolecules for micro-nano particle detection. I developed an initial technique to enhance the mixing of microdroplets through AC electrowetting using the parametric mode of oscillations. Out of curiosity, at the Cardiovascular Biomechanics and Ultrasound Laboratory, National University of Singapore (NUS) (’15), I investigated an elastic, non-viscous layer of a soft acrylic polymer, such as latex, to form a composite dielectric elastomer on the top of my project to build minimally-invasive implantable cardiac assist devices.

At the Laboratory of Medical Mechatronics (NUS) (’16-’19), I became increasingly fascinated by smart materials and soft bio-hybrid robots. From my work with bio-assistive soft robotics moving through cadavers, I found that multilayer adhesion in hydrogels is a significant problem. I solved this issue using a surface treatment with oxygen scavenging agents, a demonstration of my multidisciplinary background and thinking. In parallel, I mentored several NUS undergraduate theses and exchange students from the Johns Hopkins University, University of Pittsburgh, University of Louisville, Drexel University, etc. I have been part of a multidisciplinary team conducting cadaver experiments at the Khoo Teck Puat Advanced Surgery Training Centre, NUH for steering bench-to-bedside research. I enjoy inventing new benchmark technologies, several of which have been filed as patents with the NUS (Suzhou) Research Institute.

For future lightweight, dexterous robots, we worked closely on the novel actuators scheme such as ionic polymer–metal composites, and shape memory alloys/polymers, intending to build biomedical soft robots with unique features. For example, we are closely working in the field of 2D material films on flat substrates to show that textured graphene-based coatings can serve as ultra-stretchable molecular barriers that mimic the elasticity of polymers. In recent times, at the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems, I got interested in working in the domain of hydrogel ionotronics. A related work that I led in fabricating strong, ultra-stretchable hydrogel and electroactive polymer composites to enhance biologically inspired pumping systems is currently in revision in a Journal.

A crucial step in the design of stretchable sensors and actuators is the selection of appropriate materials, assembled structures, and fabrication methods. With recent advances in materials science and functional microstructures/nanomaterials, wearable strain sensors have demonstrated promising sensing performance for potential applications in human motion detection and soft robotics. However, several challenges associated with the design, integration, and safety of wearable and stretchable strain sensors still exist. In this realm, during my doctoral studies here at the EPFL, I take advantage of my experimental expertise with the incredible resources, collaborative ecosystem, and strong entrepreneurial mindset in developing affordable medical devices, intelligent surgical tools, smart textiles, prosthesis, flexible electronics, stretchable sensors exploiting engineering knowledge in soft materials and architectures.

How did you get your first break?

Before I completely engaged myself in the field of Medical Engineering, I wanted to immerse myself in the related fields and understand the crux of translational research. I wanted to pursue a master’s in the United States but was not ready to take huge bank loans for my education. At that time, I was wondering if some staff research positions can be attained that would give me an overview of the related research. I kept improving myself and over time that resulted in a Research Engineer Job at the NUS in the Medical Engineering domain. 

What were the challenges you faced ? How did you address them?

I kept on trying and got tons of rejections as I was making a giant leap from Electrical Engineering to Biology, Medicine to Biomedical Engineering. I believed that if my conviction is right, if I am honest and I really want to do it, I can somehow pursue this. In the Indian educational environment, especially less than a decade ago, it was almost unheard of to make this kind of “strange transition”. I used to get to bed with criticism and the next morning, I would wake up and try again. So over time I realised my naive mistakes and kept improving myself until one day the door finally opened. There is a great TED talk from Simon Sinek called “Golden Circle”. The core of the circle is “Why?” and then “How? ” and “What?“ The idea here is to start with ”Why? ” The greater purpose of the work will take the movement forward.

Where do you work now? Tell us about your research

I’m currently working as a Ph.D. student in the Laboratory of Photonic Materials and Fiber Devices, Institute of Materials, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL). My current work is broadly focused on advancing multi-material fibers for actuation and sensing for applications in surgery and medicine. We plan to focus on soft actuators, sensors based on electrochemical, magnetorheological, and colorimetric detection, as they are particularly suited for low-cost, portable, and user-friendly medical diagnostics and bioassays. To execute these kinds of transdisciplinary work, we need to utilize knowledge inherited from manufacturing, soft materials, mechanics, polymer composites, photonics, rheology, mechanical design, embedded systems, data analytics, biology, and medicine. In order to push the envelope of knowledge and come up with a user-friendly device that can do multiplexing and yet be cost-effective for developing nations is a challenging yet rewarding path. The notion that somebody somewhere can use the knowledge and devices we create in surgery, diagnostics, and therapy is itself a great motivation for me to add value to the affordable healthcare realm. I enjoy working with inquisitive, focused, light-hearted, humble human beings and I am glad that I got what I was looking for long here at the EPFL. 

How does your work benefit the society? 

I strongly believe that quality healthcare is a fundamental right of everyone. In this context, during my lifetime, I want to do something that would impact human health and lives in general, and to make products that somebody would have in their hands that they would use. This is a unidimensional vision that I plan to follow at least for the next decade. I plan to develop devices that may end up in the market with an affordable scale for the greater good of the underprivileged people. I hope in the long run I will be able to form a team of like-minded people sharing the same vision and together we will provide quality healthcare for all irrespective of class, creed, colour, and geography.

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

During my time at the Medical Mechatronics Lab (NUS), I was fortunate enough to go through some surgical robotics training at the National University Hospital (NUH), Singapore. During that time, I was able to interact with the clinicians and understand the real scenario and challenges that they face during surgery. For example, in the field of minimally invasive surgery (MIS), it is important to have biopsy forceps with precision control. It is essential to have flexible forceps that can detach from the endoscopic distal end and reach the area of the lesion. With this, a large field of operation area can be maintained by the practitioner, hence increasing the precision. This has a huge benefit when doctors work with patients suffering from nasopharyngeal carcinoma (NPC) that originates in the nasopharynx, the area behind the nose and near the base of the skull. We designed an initial prototype named OmniFlex, showing that the ball and socket joint mechanism can result in high angular range and omnidirectional curvature of a cable-driven spring-based distal forceps. Although significant advances have been made so far, the omnidirectional flexible endoscopic manipulator is still in its nascent prototype stage, and designs and challenges need to be optimized.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

  1. Never be afraid to fail
  2. Life is hard and it is okay to be scared 
  3. Nobody cares much about you. You must always be in the driver seat of your life
  4. Learn how to learn new things
  5. Build empathy, be humble, and most importantly 
  6. Get a good education and then use that education to serve Humanity: Service+ Significance = Success.

Future Plans?

My career and personal goal are to utilize engineering tools, knowledge to foster significant breakthroughs in healthcare and improving quality of life as a frontier leader/scientist in the field of Biomedical Engineering at a reputed center/institute/company with a shared vision, world-class infrastructure, and an ambiance conducive to research.