Is Biomedical Engineering Right For Me?
When you enter any engineering discipline you must have a strong interest in science and mathematics in a way that allows you to solve problems of a highly technical nature. For Biomedical Engineering you must be willing to add the life sciences and medical knowledge necessary to understand the frame work of the problems on which you will work.
This is not part of the traditional engineering education and requires not only an above average ability in math and science but also a willingness to embrace these other areas due to the interdisciplinary nature of Biomedical Engineering. The modern life sciences have become more analytical and computer based in their approach to fundamental knowledge and the biomedical industry in now considered one of the leading edge industries whose benefits we are just beginning to reap.
The output of these industries directly benefit the health and well being of people and hence the Biomedical Engineer is often attracted to this humanistic component as well as the advanced technology. Examples are bountiful and include such devices as implantable cardiac pacemakers and defibrillators, joint replacement implants, biomedical imaging, novel drug delivery systems, and tissue engineered skin used for grafting. If these topics and applications interest you and you enjoy the challenge of working on such people oriented problems then Biomedical Engineering is for you.
Biomedical Engineers work with a broad range of professionals ranging from other engineering specialties, to basic laboratory scientists, to physicians and nurses. Strong communications skills are essential and often the Biomedical Engineer becomes the general interpreter for such widely educated individuals; the one who knows the language of both engineering and medicine.
High school preparation for Biomedical Engineering would include four years of math (through pre-calculus), one year each of physics, chemistry and biology. Most universities also expect the prospective Biomedical Engineer to have 4 years of English and a good mix of social studies and language courses which comprise a strong pre-college curriculum.
What kind of jobs can I get after college?
Biomedical Engineers have a wide range of job opportunities and can include a hospital based practice as a clinical engineer, an industrially based engineer designing medical devices, a technical sales engineer, or a staff engineer in a medical research laboratory. Biomedical Engineers find themselves in wide variety of specialties which may organize around various diseases, such as cancer, or organ systems such as the cardiovascular system, or technology, such as biomaterials or imaging. A Biomedical Engineer may have jobs which involve the following skills and applications:
- Develop software to detect abnormal heart rhythms for use in a cardiac pacemaker.
- Design the next generation of hip implants using modern materials and mechanical design considerations.
- Investigate and perfect a novel drug delivery method to treat a chronic disease which requires constant blood levels of the particular medicine.
- Bring a product to market through the Food and Drug Administration's very involved pre-market approval process which requires extensive clinical testing.
- Manage a large hospital based group of biomedical equipment technicians and provide the hospital with engineering expertise in the evaluation of new and expensive technologies.
- Design and build a unique research device as part of a multidisciplinary research team to enable scientific discovery.
- Advance the state of the art one of the many modern imaging modalities (PET, MRI, CAT scans) either in the progression of current technology or the development of new ones.
- Develop an advanced coding/stimulation scheme for a cochlear implant which provides auditory inputs to people with significant hearing deficits.
- Analyze a special communications or mobility need of a handicapped patient and develop the appropriate enabling technology.
What courses do I need to take?
A typical route is through an ABET accredited Biomedical Engineering program where the curriculum integrates the engineering disciplines with the biomedical sciences. Many of these programs expect the students to "track" into a specific discipline such as biomechanics or bioelectricity where their interests are channeled along both a traditional engineering field with the necessary biomedical applications. Other students will pursue the BS in Engineering (usually at an institution without a formal Biomedical Engineering degree) where they can choose a group of electives in biology and organic chemistry which will give them the necessary breadth to pursue professional degrees or further graduate Biomedical Engineering studies. These students may also track through the major elements of a traditional engineering degree but use the their electives to give them this breadth of education.
Regardless of the approach to a Biomedical Engineering degree the curriculum will have a complete series of math courses from calculus through differential equations and will likely include a course in statistics. A full complement of science courses in physics, chemistry, and biology with advanced courses such as organic chemistry and physiology are also quite usual for Biomedical Engineering majors. Most engineering majors will also take a series social studies/humanities courses during their four years of education.
The engineering courses may follow a track with a traditional engineering bias(e.g., electrical, chemical, mechanical), but will have to integrate the life science examples so that Biomedical Engineering students will have sufficient laboratory experiences to include taking measurements and interpreting data from living systems. They must also learn the issues involved with the interface between living systems and non-living materials and systems. Courses such as biomaterials, biomechanics, and bioelectricity are often part of the undergraduate Biomedical Engineering curriculum.
Up to two-thirds of Biomedical Engineering undergraduates go on for advanced degrees either in graduate school for an MS or PhD or to professional schools for an MD, DDS, or JD. Thus the Biomedical Engineering degree with its broad interdisciplinary approach attracts students with similar educational goals and enables them to pursue a wide variety of career options.
Should I obtain a BS in Biomedical Engineering or pursue a traditional engineering degree followed by a MS in Biomedical Engineering?
This is a commonly asked question since Biomedical Engineering is a relatively new degree program and is not offered by a large number of universities. There is no simple answer as both approaches are quite common and every student has a different set of needs. The undergraduate Biomedical Engineering degree is often a stepping stone for professional studies (Medicine, Law, Dentistry, etc) or graduate work (Biomedical Engineering, Physiology, Molecular Biology, etc) but many students also go directly into industries where biomedical products are designed and manufactured. Biomedical Engineering graduates bring a unique knowledge of modern life sciences and engineering design and analysis skills to an employer.
Evidence of the newness and growing interest in Biomedical Engineering is the fact that over 40 new Departments and Programs (double the previous number) have been started in the past 5 years and this number is expected to continue to increase.
Key Words and Core Skills:
Key Words - what is a biomedical engineer expected to know?
- Drug Delivery
- Functional Genomics: Microarray Technology, Integrated Systems, and Analysis Tools
- Instrumentation and Patient Monitoring
- Informatics and Computational Methods
- Medical Implants: Sensors and Devices
- Rehabilitation and Prostheses
- Cell and Tissue Engineering
- Integrative Physiology and Biophysical Modeling
Core Skills - What is a biomedical engineer expected to be good at?
One key skill of the Biomedical Engineer is the ability to understand complex medical problems and use engineering methods to solve them. This often includes being part of multi-disciplinary team where the Biomedical Engineer "works" both sides of the problem. The Biomedical Engineer will fully appreciate that most biological systems do not follow the precise physical laws that govern mechanical, chemical, or electrical systems. The biological systems have a spectrum of responses to various stimuli - remember the last time you were given a medicine that worked for everyone else, but not you! Well understanding these less than predictable systems and yet having the skills to design and manipulate the physical systems that form part of the problem solution may give you a sense of what makes a good Biomedical Engineer. Put another way the Biomedical Engineer must master the interface between the living system and the engineered system.
Problem definition is a core of skill for Biomedical Engineers. Add to this the ability to apply science, mathematics, and engineering principles to solve the problem and we get closer to understanding the make up of the Biomedical Engineer. Other primary skills are the use of engineering tools such as computers and the ability to effectively communicate with proteges, peers, and superiors.