Engineers often work on complex systems, from computer chips to skyscrapers, but biomedical engineers work with something even more complicated -- the human body.
The field of biomedical engineering, also known as bioengineering, draws those interested in the challenges of straddling the worlds of biology, engineering and healthcare. "The common denominator is an interest in biology and living systems in all their complexities," says Morton Friedman, professor of biomedical engineering at Duke University's Pratt School of Engineering. "It's just amazingly difficult, and it's very complex."
Biomedical Engineering Basics
Biomedical engineering is something of a hybrid, bringing together expertise from other engineering disciplines, such as chemical, electrical and mechanical engineering, to solve biology and healthcare problems. These experts have contributed to the advancement of medicine through roles in the development of arthroscopic surgery, dialysis, pacemakers, and other devices and medical techniques. Their work is often collaborative, requiring them to work on teams with doctors, nurses, technicians and others involved in the practice of medicine.
"You're dealing in health issues, and that is a real motivation," Friedman says. "You're doing things that can really help people."
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 15.6 percent of biomedical engineers work in pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing concerns. Others are employed by hospitals, government agencies, research organizations and universities.
Education and Training
Compared with other engineering disciplines, biomedical engineering is a relatively new field within academia. Many of today's leaders have entered the field with degrees in other engineering disciplines. Even today, students interested in biomedical engineering may be able to pursue a bachelor's degree in another engineering discipline and then seek a master's or doctoral degree in biomedical engineering.
Undergraduate biomedical engineering programs vary by school but typically include courses in life sciences, medical instrumentation and physiology. They may also require students to select a track, such as biochemical, bioelectrical, biomaterials and biomechanics, corresponding to the specialties that biomedical engineers often pursue in the workforce.
Even as enrollments in other engineering disciplines remain relatively steady, undergraduate biomedical engineering enrollments are increasing rapidly, according to the Engineering Workforce Commission of the American Association of Engineering Societies. The field is viewed not just as one with cutting-edge challenges and entrepreneurial opportunities but also as suitable training for other careers. A biomedical engineering degree is now often a gateway to medical school, consulting and even law school.
Consider the Possibilities
"One of the attributes of biomedical engineering is that you can work on the kinds of things you might be doing as another kind of engineer but apply them to a biological system," Friedman says.
Research into artificial limbs, for instance, might require a biomedical engineer to draw on knowledge of mechanical engineering, as well as anatomy and physiology. An engineer working for a hospital might concentrate on computer systems for patient monitoring. And yet another might be seeking breakthroughs in strong, nontoxic biomaterials to be implanted in the body.