A biomedical honour: David Dewhurst Award

Monday, 09 December 2019

Dr Finkel was honoured by Australia’s biomedical engineers in November, when he was presented with the 2019 David Dewhurst Award for Biomedical Engineering Excellence. First presented in 1996 by the Biomedical College of Engineers Australia, the award honours leaders in biomedical device development in Australia.

His nomination acknowledged Dr Finkel’s extensive career founding and leading biotech company Axon Instruments, where he developed world-leading patch clamp devices capable of measuring the electrical signals from a single neuron.

At the presentation ceremony, Dr Finkel admitted that he’d never considered himself a biomedical engineer, instead calling himself an electrical engineer or neuroscientist as required. As such, it was quite a surprise to realise that the title perfectly described his career! His full acceptance remarks are available below.

The award’s namesake, David Dewhurst, was one of Australia's first prominent Biomedical Engineers and the founder of the Institution of Biomedical Engineering. He investigated the connection between the electrical signal used to trigger a muscle and the resulting force the muscle produced. A full biography of David Dewhurst is available here

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I am deeply honoured to have been awarded the Engineers Australia Biomedical College David Dewhurst Award for 2019.

But, I need to let you all in on a secret – I never set out to be a biomedical engineer!

In fact, until now I’ve not even been thinking of myself as a biomedical engineer. Instead, I’ve been thinking of myself as an electrical engineer. Or depending on the occasion, as a neuroscientist.

So, I googled the definition of biomedical engineering.  From Imperial College, London, I found: “Biomedical engineering is a discipline that advances knowledge in engineering, biology and medicine…”

With that definition in mind, now that I think about it; I am indeed a biomedical engineer, and becoming so was inevitable.

As a young boy, I was fascinated by the inner workings of the human body. From almost the moment that I comprehended that one day I would be an adult, I was convinced I would be a doctor.  I loved to read about the workings of the human body and pick apart three dimensional models.

At the same time, I was also intrigued by physics and electronics and space travel and deep water exploration.

Finally, one day when I was sitting in the back of the classroom in Year 12 filling in the university application form, the reality of making a choice became a moment for sombre reflection.  At the last moment, I realised my interest lay in the mechanics of the human body – how it works – rather than the higher level calling to make people well, so I made the decision to do engineering.  It seemed safer (for patients).

Eventually I graduated with a bachelor of electrical engineering.  What next?  I had no idea, but I decided to avoid getting a job just yet and signed up to do a PhD instead.

I found myself occupying a lab bench in the Biophysics Lab within the Department of Electrical Engineering at Monash University. There I discovered that the human brain – invented by natural selection hundreds of thousands of years ago – was using the exact same principles of control systems engineering, including negative feedback, that we human engineers developed a mere 250 years ago.

Think about it, it’s mind boggling. James Watt’s engine had a steam governor that he invented from scratch, but it operated in exactly the same way as the temperature control mechanism in your body, or the negative feedback loop that helps you to catch a cricket ball when a cross wind is blowing.  Nature got it right; and since we (without peeking) landed in the same place as Nature, you can be proud that we also got it right.

The mixture of analogue and digital electrical communication in the brain; the complexity; and the operational redundancy, are stunning. This insight led to my thirty years in academia and industry as an unwitting biomedical engineer: combining electronic engineering with neuroscience research, with some mechanical and optical engineering thrown in for taste.

Over the course of my career, I designed and produced a series of products for electrical recording at the microvolt and picoamp levels in tiny nerve cells: for image-based recording of specific proteins and voltage changes in individual living cells, for undertaking gene expression analysis in biotech companies, and for image based and electrical based screening of candidate medicinal compounds at pharmaceutical companies.

It was a successful line of business. But I ask myself, to what do I owe that success?

First, my PhD supervisor and ultimately my research colleague, Professor Steve Redman, who set very high expectations and never wavered in his anticipation of my success even when I did.

Second, the Chairman of the Department at Monash University, Professor Doug Lampard. “Alan,” said Professor Lampard, “you can have any equipment you want, the most advanced in the world. As long as you design and build it yourself.”  Seemed reasonable!  I modified my equipment till 3 AM each morning, then tested it as a user the next day, saw what was wrong and modified it again.  It was a tight loop of customer test – design refinement – customer test – design refinement.  By the end of my PhD I was using the best amplifier in the world for recording the electrical activity of brain cells, and I didn’t even know it.

Third, my wife, Elizabeth, who has had the constant temerity to challenge every idea I have ever had.  Unnerving as it is, I have to admit that there is nothing more important than having your ideas challenged!

And finally, my father, who instilled in me a relentless commitment to quality.

Somehow, it all came together.  Not everybody believes me when I tell them, but at no stage in my career did I ever have a long-range view of my next career step. Instead, I focussed on doing what I was doing well. Eventually, the doors of opportunity opened and I stepped through.

This is an important principle, known by others by the aphorism from Louis Pasteur:  “Chance favours the prepared mind.”  What I call ‘the doors of opportunity’, Louis Pasteur calls ‘chance’. If you prepare well, those doors will open up. But you have to step through.

I went from electrical engineer, to neuroscientist, to publisher, to electric car charging specialist, to educational program developer, to university chancellor, to President of the national academy of engineering, to Chief Scientist. Always, I did my best, then stepped through.

In all my guises, I say to you thank you.  I am honoured by this award, and proud to be receiving it from the Biomedical College.

And I am delighted that it is named after David Dewhurst. As I compare my career with David’s, it is even clearer to me that I am, in fact, a biomedical engineer.

Like me, David studied physiology and electronics, but three decades ahead of me.

Like me, David developed innovative electronic medical instrumentation.

Like me, David used the term “electrophysiology” to describe his field of interest.

Like me, David’s PhD thesis was on electrical parameters in tissue.  Mine, specifically, was on electrical signalling between nerve cells in brain tissue.

Like me, in addition to his broader interest in physiology, David was an expert in electronics design.

This last trait is critically important.  Although I was and am a generalist, I have deep discipline knowledge in electronics, built on fundamental studies in physics and maths. Being a generalist is valuable, but it is not enough.  You have to be a specialist in something as well.

If I were to offer advice to young biomedical engineers it would be not to compromise between being a generalist and being a specialist.  Be both.

There is no doubt that the future of pharmaceuticals development, medical devices and diagnostics lies at the intersection of engineering and biology, portending a bright future for biomedical engineers.

On top of the surprise of receiving this award, the parallel surprise is that this award has helped me to develop my own perception of my professional career.

You have helped me to understand my own role in the world, as a biomedical engineer, and I am proud of it.

Thank you.

Last updated: Monday, 09 December 2019