Did you like how we did? Rate your experience!



46 votes

What would you say to someone considering majoring in biomedical?

Choose a biomedical engineering undergraduate major if: a long-term career involving application of engineering in medicine interests you, and you are open to going where the jobs are after graduation - mainly cities. Let me take the liberty to expand. Long, as my response may be, I think background, context and detail matter in order to make my case. A few words about me and why I feel qualified to respond to this question. I am a Professor of Biomedical Engineering at University of Iowa. Been a faculty for 15 years. I teach and perform research in biomechanics of soft tissues and medical device design aspects relevant to it. I cant with a straight face tell you I do not have a vested interest on the question of whether someone should pursue a biomedical engineering major. After all, educating biomedical engineering majors - both at undergraduate and graduate levels - is my lifes work and so I wouldnt put it past me to have some level of subconscious bias that reinforces my worth. But Id like to think I can be reasonably objective despite this conflict of interest if I am conscious of it. Let me add one more qualification to buttress my case. Aside from students I get to teach in my courses, I have mentored about 15 graduate and 20 undergraduate students in my lab for at least a year or as much as eight years and almost 70% of these have gone to work at biomedical device companies right after graduation with the rest choosing to go to grad/medical school. I am saying this because getting a job appears to be a key issue in these discussions. I hope I have some credibility there. On the occasional day when I sit back and think about my role in the scheme of things, effective guidance of young folks towards their career aspirations comes to mind as one of the top few. Hopefully, my perspectives arent too quickly dismissed as an overly detailed pontification of a professor from his ivory tower. In this response, I will stick to the case for an undergraduate degree in biomedical engineering for those seeking industry opportunities specifically. I will use the term, 'medical devices' in a broad sense to refer to not just an implantable prosthesis, but also medical informatics software, diagnostics equipment and diagnostic software, apps, etc. Lets not forget other contexts where biomedical engineering may have a role to play such as engineering-based research into understanding diseases that may lead to cures, the field of education itself, etc. And finally, Ill use BME" to refer to biomedical engineering, bioengineering, biological engineering, etc. Ok, so lets get to it. A BME undergraduate major provides a unique learning experience that isnt readily available within other majors. See, the human body works by leveraging aspects of chemistry, electricity and mechanics in unison. For instance, the mechanics of cardiac motion is mixed in with the chemistry and electrical conduction of cardiac muscle activation. We cannot afford to forever compartmentalize our understanding of it and our design of devices for treating them. The breadth of topics covered in BME majors attempts to accommodate that. But there is a deeper issue. Engineering and medicine follow near-opposite paradigms. Traditional engineering is about ever-improving our own constructs. We (for the most part) understand the raw materials, the assembly and how best to make them happen because, um.. we came up with all that. Medicine (or to some extent biology itself), on the other hand, has this near-perfect construct called the human body to start with and seeks to learn how it works so that when it falters, we may get in, move around a few pieces, throw in a piece or two of our own and get out, so it returns to where it was. We sure as hell do not understand how it was all put together from the ground-up like we do with man-made constructs like a bridge, an automobile or an iPhone. BME is about attempting to bridge a field with a ground-up paradigm with one that uses (for all practical purposes) a top-down paradigm. To be an effective bridge is not so straightforward because the thinking is different in every sense of the word between the two disciplines. Any engineering major who takes Physiology can attest to how foreign it may seem. Many engineers are quick to dismiss subjects like physiology as just a lot of memorizing, but in reality, it is really a first exposure to a top-down paradigm of thinking', not memorizing'. So significant and deliberate educational exposure to medicine does matter. Exposure to medicine and its way of thinking will help students appreciate things like tolerances for error that can dramatically differentiate whether a device would make it in the clinic or whether it will remain academic. For the record, I am not implying here that medicine has a low tolerance for error in the way engineers understand the word, error. Indeed, in some ways, medicine can and often does accommodate huge tolerances for error that may make engineers blush. Medicine itself is at its core, an approximate science that attempts to deal effectively with vague and crazily heterogenous information through subjective and gestalt approaches. And engineering in medicine has to accommodate its unique regulatory, intellectual property and liability landscape. BME major students get to internalize this through courses, seminars and senior design projects in subtle ways (rather than through explicit instruction) that will come in handy in the real world of medical devices. An undergraduate student majoring in a non-BME discipline can gain some exposure to this via a course or two, but it is unlikely to be broad or thorough enough. That a BME major is not for undergraduate students is not an uncommon opinion. Indeed, it tends to be the default opinion unless challenged otherwise. Among faculty in traditional engineering departments, some strongly believe that the very idea of a field/department called biomedical engineering is unnecessary. After all, the logic goes, medicine is just one more application for engineering, so why make it a new engineering discipline and teach it as such? Frankly, I am all right with such opinions. Reasonable people can disagree about these things and I will readily concede that such an opinion is not without an element of merit. But as I detail in my above point about bridging near-opposite paradigms, I do submit that BME helps internalize something actually unique and hence deserves to be its own field of learning and study much more than any of its application-specific peers such as aerospace engineering, environmental engineering, mining engineering, manufacturing, etc. The grief that BME gets from traditional engineering disciplines is ironic today. And It is likely to fade away in time. It parallels the grief that (todays traditional) engineering itself got a century ago when it started to branch out as a field of its own right rather than staying as applied physics, applied chemistry or applied mathematics. Imagine that in 1914, Engineer' merely meant Technician' and a college-major in Engineering was a novelty compared to one in the sciences such as Physics. If Quora existed via newspapers then, I can fathom a Q&A like this...There is some validity to the point being made above. Engineering, one could conceivably say, is nothing but the sciences and math applied to specific problems. Yet it came to develop its own theories, techniques and procedures, albeit empirically-driven. To build an aircraft, it wasnt enough if one was taught Newtons, Hookes and Navier-Stokes' laws, but it required additional knowledge derived from collective experience about which materials, what shapes of aerofoil and what fuels work best. With increasing complexity, it became inevitable that aspiring engineers pick an engineering major in college and not Physics or Chemistry. So too I suspect, theories and ideas that build upon foundations in traditional engineering, but with significant deviations from it to accommodate the demands of biology and medicine will be developed - some already underway in certain sub-fields - and BME will find its rightful place, if it hasnt already for the most part. See, it makes sense that the responder in that fake newspaper Q&A took the position he took. But history proves him wrong. Those who took Engineering majors in 1914 likely made for effective careers in engineering over the next 40 years. So also, todays students with a BME major, will face some challenges, but will easily overcome these in practice. Something rather unique about our program at University of Iowa is that we are one of the oldest undergraduate BME programs in the nation - starting in the 80s. Ten years ago, I was responsible for running an alumni survey. We chose to survey only those alumni of our undergraduate BME program who graduated between 1990 and 1995. At the time, these are folks who have been out of our program 10-15 years since graduating with a BS in BME. We found out what they currently do, how they felt about their undergrad education, the works. Put simply, we got nothing but positive feedback but importantly, not a single regret about having chosen a BME major. These were graduates from 20 years ago, mind you. [I should emphasize here that I am all for breadth (touching upon all engineering sciences) and depth (teaching at least one in detail) in BME education. But to the extent we are talking about undergraduate education and to the extent what can be crammed into a students brain is a zero sum game, one has to hit a sweet spot in the spectrum between breadth and depth. I think BME as a field has correctly chosen a spot that is on the breadth half of the spectrum considering the nature of biology and medicine. Often undergrad BME programs have tracks that allow students to delve deeper in one specialization through electives. For those who get to graduate school, the spot needs to and does move toward the depth half because specialization affords that luxury. I have spent a career delving deep into the mathematical and physical engineering sciences relevant to my specialized focus areas of research and Id be the last person to take a philosophical position against delving deep into engineering sciences in general. We are talking here specifically about undergraduate education.] But it is not all rosy as BME undergraduate education does have some problems. Some of the concerns raised about BME are systemic to it (and may not be problems at all), some can be attributed to growing pains of a developing field and others to its stakeholders not doing enough. One systemic issue is the question of balancing depth with breadth in the education of BME UG majors. This weighs heavily on those of us who care about our students. We have not nailed it for sure and this is why BME programs differ greatly between Universities in what is being taught. It is however the topic of intense debates within faculty, in society meetings, etc. And this challenge also bleeds into courses. I teach a class called Cardiac and Vascular Mechanics to mostly undergraduate seniors and grad students. Been teaching it for 12 years. And I still tinker with the material - partly to keep with new information in that field, but also with striking the balance between providing exposure to the breadth of the field and delving deep into at least a few aspects of it. Lack of consistency in BME undergraduate education between different Universities and countries leaves medical device employers guessing. Consequently, they lean toward hedging their bets with non-BME majors. This is an inevitable growing pain and was the case with engineering too in early 20th century. ABET - the accreditation board for engineering - has been hard at work to standardize BME education and honestly, I think they are doing quite well in that regard. I expect this problem to fade away. There are things that its stakeholders - faculty, mainly but also medical device industry - can do for BME that isnt happening as rapidly as it could. These include better sharing of curriculum and teaching strategies, faculty-industry partnership regarding curriculum development, employment opportunities and technology transfer, and positively impacting the regulatory, patent and liability landscapes regarding medical devices. A second issue is overlap of material between courses. Partly, this is due to lack of authoritative textbooks in an incipient field. Frankly, redundancy in education has some useful value as it reinforces key concepts well. But such redundancy has to be deliberate and not a result of random chance. These are two things that faculty - yours truly included - could do better on. But its all changing in a good way. Thats all nice, but what about the bottom-line, jobs? Ah yes. Your first job after college graduation. Let me spare you the (perfectly valid) advice about following your interests and not making getting a job your primary end-point. There ARE jobs. Employers DO hire BME majors. Just not all the time or for all the jobs within the medical device industry. I find that major device makers tend to go for BME majors when it involves communication with healthcare workers or where a birds eye view helps such as new product development, product testing, regulatory compliance, sales and clinical trials, etc. From my own lab, students have gone on to various types of positions in medical device space including development engineer, R&D engineer, sales, regulatory manager, process engineer, you name it. Job fairs dont tend to be the place to get these jobs though (collegiate job fairs can be a rather depressing place for a BME major) and this often reinforces the idea that there are no jobs out there. BME majors can do a few things while in college to improve their odds of employment: carefully choose a specialization within BME for elective courses that suits the career opportunities he/she seeks rather than randomly mixing up electives based on less important factors like grades, ease, etc. perform co-curricular activities such as laboratory research with graduate students, internship in the industry where a career is sought, etc. strive to learn more than what is taught in courses - programming, app development, CAD software skills, etc. The internet has so much to offer. be mentally prepared to relocate where opportunities exist rather than settling for any job at a location of choice recognize that communication skills matter for BME majors. A lot. Much more than other disciplines. Prepare to write and talk effectively. [Special comment for foreign students.] Much of the above applies even more strongly for foreign students because the need for work authorization paperwork on the employers part acts as a disincentive. But making contact with potential employers through internships can help address that. For foreign graduate students with an eye on the industry, you should especially take care to specialize in sub-fields of BME that have such opportunities and ensure you do at least one internship during your graduate studies. Still, following your interest is important. But prepare yourself appropriately.You may be tempted to ask, "if I have to do all this extra stuff to get a job with a BME major, isnt that the same as saying my odds for employment are lower in BME?" Yes and no. First, you dont have to do all these additional stuff. Just that they help. But really, why would you want to have it any other way? College is the place you want to do these things and having some incentive is more the reason why you would actually do them. To summarize, let me list out what I think are the pros and cons of a BME major for someone interested in a career applying engineering to medicine. Pros: you are learning unique skill sets in an exciting field; you get exposure to the breadth of engineering disciplines; courses (in the junior and senior years) and senior design projects can be quite fascinating; your first job can easily land you at the cutting edge of technology making for a long-term career that you will also enjoy along the way; Cons: switching to a career not involving health is a little difficult (but definitely possible, happens often); jobs tend to be available mainly in cities; you will have to work harder to land that first internship and first job. Ill end with a personal pitch. In my lab, some of our work involves understanding how blood flow (fluid mechanics) affects surgical intervention strategies for brain aneurysms. When we get general visitors to the lab (high school kids, parents, administrators, etc.), my students give an elevator pitch about their projects. If I am in a playful mood, I slip in this claim: "What she does in this project is neither rocket science nor brain surgery. It is rocket science applied to brain surgery". Its the kind of stuff you may get to learn about in courses or even get to work on in in a BME senior design project. BME is truly is at the cutting edge of human endeavor. While much of the grief it gets is understandable today, it will be pass in no time. If you satisfy the criteria I laid out above for choosing a major in this exciting field, then jump in and enjoy the ride!

Loading, please wait...