A Biomedical Engineer Should Know More Than Theory For Their First Job

“The mere practical architect is not able to assign sufficient reasons for the forms he adopts; and the theoretic architect also fails, grasping the shadow instead of the substance. He who is theoretic as well as practical, is therefore doubly armed; able not only to prove the propriety of his design, but equally so to carry it into execution.” The Architecture of Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, trans. Joseph Gwilt (London, 1826), pp 3-4″

Marcus Vitruvius Pollio’s words were put down in writing many years ago during the 1st century BC. Nevertheless, I am sure they would ring true in every corporate engineering department and engineering consulting firm today. The reason is clear to anyone who has had to practice engineering. Engineers are expected to create useful tools, devices and structures. The key skills that make the engineering profession valuable to society are their ability to design and build structures and processes that are efficient, reliable and safe. Getting the products from paper to reality requires in addition to technical skills, problem solving, people and business skills. Engineering can not be done efficiently without an understanding of the multiple business and technical processes that are needed to create the final product.  The best engineering professionals can take into account the theoretical and the practical during the development of an intricate product development puzzle that includes people as well as technology.

The second half of Pollio’s observation is that an engineer who understands only the theoretical is not fully prepared to perform their profession. Unfortunately this is where most engineering undergraduates find themselves at graduation today. They know about the tools of their trade but do not know how to put them into practice. They are not prepared to design well because they typically have not been steeped nor experienced basic production processes. They can envision only the most rudimentary test protocols because they are taught only the rudimentary elements of applied statistics. They have not internalized the fact that their corporate careers hinge completely on their ability to communicate to and understand the business professionals that sells the product. Some curricula leave them completely unprepared in this respect. This state of affairs is particularly harmful to the B.S. BME graduate because their curricula rarely have a solid technical core to hang their hats on. This leaves them more vulnerable to a negative review by a hiring manager looking for someone who can hit the floor running.

The ultimate undergraduate biomedical engineering program, in my opinion, would provide the graduate theoretical background, a generous helping of hands on experience and a knowledge of the practical aspects of creating a product. This would allow them to face that first hiring manager and confidently state what they can do to help them. It would also make them a much more valuable asset to an academic research laboratory.  Research laboratories which depend heavily on their graduate students to do the “hands on” work but more often than not find entering  the graduate programs without these skills.

The majority of biomedical engineering programs will only be able to obtain the depth of insight needed to create the program and graduate I describe in one manner. They would need lecturers and professors that have firsthand knowledge about the process of creating a product for sale in the health care field. Experience that can only come from years of work in either the pharmaceutical or the medical device industry. The reason is that it takes at least the same amount of years to become an adept professional at the product development process as it does any field of research in engineering. It is only at that point that an engineer can fully convey the skills needed to succeed as a practicing engineer in the position of professor or lecturer. Unfortunately today we have too many engineering departments that do not have this expertise.

Some may argue that adding more material to a curriculum would require either increasing its length, an unpalatable option in today’s atmosphere of growing tuition, or removing theoretical content. I would respond that nothing could be further from the truth. An appropriate environment can be created with several industry experienced lecturers and professors as a core teaching current courses and available to students for advising. In fact it is done every day at career oriented universities.  Their presence would inject an air of the practical realities of engineering that would complement and add depth to theoretical subject matter.

To be clear I am arguing for two end results. One is for a graduate with a realistic foreknowledge and the practical skills of their profession. The second is for an education system which integrates into its programs the tremendous amount of sophisticated product development knowledge available. Knowledge which is embodied by the practitioners of applied biomedical engineering that graduate from the Health Care Industry. In my opinion, the first end result can only be achieved if the second comes to pass.

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