Muhammad Zaman, PhD

Muhammad Zaman, PhD

Assistant Professor, Biomedical Engineering
Principle Investigator, Laboratory for Engineering Education and Development
Boston University

Focus: At the interface of cell biology, mechanics, systems engineering and medicine, Zaman seeks to develop robust technologies and innovative solutions to improve the quality and practice of medicine in the developing world.

Challenge: In developing regions worldwide, millions of people die annually because of lack of affordable diagnostic technology, poor capacity to maintain equipment or ineffective systems level public health policy.

Innovation: Zaman’s Laboratory for Engineering Education and Development (LEED) has developed a cell phone and solar-powered pulse oximeter and is working on other low-cost innovative solutions.

That Muhammad Zaman became a professor is no surprise.

“I hail from a family where academics were valued and from a very early age, I thought about a career in research,” says Zaman. “My father was a vice chancellor, my mother a teacher, and my brother is on the faculty at Princeton.”

Zaman received his undergraduate degree in physics and chemistry at Arkansas Tech and his PhD at the University of Chicago as a Burroughs-Wellcome Fellow in physical chemistry. He was a Herman and Margaret Sokol Foundation Post-Doctoral Fellow from 2003-2006 at MIT and the Whitehead Institute.

Zaman moved south to join the faculty at the University of Texas, Austin, but an interest in medical work brought him to Boston University where, in 2009, he joined the faculty of the biomedical engineering department—one of the top BME programs in the country. His focus was mostly on cancer, but he also wanted to address developing technologies in public health. About the same time, BU was launching a global health program on campus and Zaman used that opportunity to aggressively push into the area of engineering and public health.

“My goal is to interface global health and technology with a bottoms-up approach, motivating people to solve their own problems,” says Zaman.

Boston University has had a long relationship with politically stable Zambia, which provided Zaman an ideal situation in which to work. He saw tremendous opportunity and growth in devices/technology solutions and diagnostics that would be applicable in impoverished, resource-limited environments.

“So much money and equipment is donated every year, but it ends up not being used because no one knows how to use it,” says Zaman. “We need to build up engineering capacity to develop new solutions and rapid diagnostics.”

Utilizing a fellowship award, he established the Laboratory for Engineering Education and Development (LEED), which prepares engineering students for challenges and opportunities in global health by integrating engineering with global health problems. LEED strives to utilize engineering concepts and methods to enable individuals in developing countries to break away from the donor-recipient cycle and participate actively in developing innovative solutions to challenges in public health. The LEED lab recently won an award at BU for developing the solar-powered pulse oximeter, a tool that was cheap and that worked in resource limited regions.

Pulse oximetry is the standard clinical method for monitoring patients’ blood oxygen saturation and pulse rates, yet it is not easily available in low-resource settings. The under-five child mortality rate in Sub-Saharan Africa is 142 per 1000 live births with acute respiratory infections being one of the leading causes of deaths. Pulse oximetry has the potential to indicate various hypoxemic conditions before the onset of apparent signs and symptoms including pneumonia and other acute respiratory infections, neonatal illness, particularly sepsis and low birth weight in children. LEED built the low-cost, highly robust, user-friendly, solar-powered pulse oximeter and is in the process of field-testing for distribution to the global market.

Zaman has received numerous teaching awards, including from the American Society for Engineering Education and the University of Texas, as well as research awards, such as the FEBS Young Investigator Award in Matrix Biology, and the BU College of Engineering Early Career Research Excellence Award. The week we spoke with Dr. Zaman, he was named to the technical committee of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa.

He was recently selected as one of 53 innovative early-career educators to participate in the National Academy of Engineering’s Frontiers of Education (FOEE) symposium. The symposium invited top young engineering educators across all engineering disciplines that have made a contribution to improving engineering in this country, with a view towards improving the US engineering sector. Zaman also organized and chaired a first-ever BME summit in Zambia that was focused on creating a culture of innovation and education and research in biomedical engineering. The summit got wide coverage from local media and has led to the University of Zambia actively working to create a biomedical engineering degree program. See article in The Post Online, Zambia.

Professor Zaman’s advice to students at any level is to be creative. “Think outside the box and be terrain ready,” he says. “Befriend a policy maker or economist. At the end of the day these problems are so complex, if you only look at it with one set of glasses; you will never come up with a solution.“

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