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Engineering a better BME: A senior’s perspective on the BME major

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In my previous column, I highlighted some areas of improvement in the curriculum, including the BME Design Fellows, a great step in developing skills which could be used in the engineering industry, an area which was previously lacking.

Greg Goldman, a BME/ECE senior appreciated the support and focus on industry-related engineering in the BME Design Fellows. “The instruction was excellent,” he said. “A big improvement would simply come from more rigor. I would love to see a required project in that class which involves using the machine shop.” 

Goldman brings up an interesting subject—projects. While many BME classes have labs, not many of those labs actually have projects, especially ones that provide emphasis on creating something. While this may be the effect of a curriculum in which students walk away with a little bit of everything, students should be given the option to specialize early if they’d chose to, and develop the skills they need to succeed for whichever field they’re interested in. For those interested in engineering industry, they should be provided the instruction and resources to develop skills useful for industry in a classroom setting through projects.

For me, medical devices were what I was interested in, and what I wanted to do coming to Duke. My favorite class at Duke was my class on medical devices and instrumentation. Each week, I learned about a new technology and medical device, and implemented some version of it in lab, culminating in a project that used knowledge garnered throughout the semester. I learned a great deal in the class, and was eager to learn more about circuits, electronic design, and its biomedical application. But the next chance was my senior design class. It feels that at the end of my college career, only three classes in BME were actually helpful for my interests. I wish I could have taken two or three design classes in place of some of the other BME classes I was forced to take.

A way to improve would be to let students design their own BME major, and pick and choose the classes that they’re interested in, supplemented with classes from other majors. It can still maintain the focus on interdisciplinary studies, but would be more specialized. Hypothetical, specializing tracks in BME could be for those interested in going to graduate/medical school, those interested in industry, and those interested in other fields but still want to develop a strong quantitative and analytical background. As nice as it is to learn how the heart works, or how to model enzyme kinetics, that could be part of the pre-med track within Duke BME, and a student interested in signal processing, or medical devices could opt out of those classes if they felt that they wouldn’t benefit from those classes, creating a “pick-and-choose” model for better specialization. 

One could argue that this becomes a nightmare for those who aren’t sure what they want to do—there becomes too many options available for the indecisive ones, and that the current curriculum’s model of delving into the widest range of topics helps one determine their interests, rather than embarking on a wild goose chase to find an area they like. A redesigned curriculum focused on electives could mitigate this issue. Give us a better introductory course, or perhaps even a two-semester introductory course, covering different topics to give an overview of the broad field of BME. This intro course, with enough academic rigor to prepare students for difficult electives, could prove to be vastly rewarding. Alternatively, core introductory classes, similar to how ECE does it with their 200 level classes, could be used to bring the area cores in BME (imaging, biomechanics, and electrobiology) to students earlier (rather than waiting until second semester junior year), allowing more freedom for upper level electives taught by Duke’s great BME faculty who spearhead world class research, or classes from other engineering majors. 

Duke BME does a decent job right now in preparing students for graduate school through academics and research, for medical school because the curriculum overlaps a lot with the pre-med track, and for business/consulting through analytical skills. The Duke BME education is less useful for students interested in engineering industry, because students who are not double majors often have difficulty working in areas that they’re interested in, especially the medical devices industry. It’s not until junior year that students realize they have difficulty competing against an ECE or a mechanical engineering major for industry jobs because they simply don’t know enough in comparison. It’s also difficult for BME majors to find what they’re looking for in career prospects. 

Joanne Zheng, a BME/ECE junior said, “I wish Duke supported my career path. I’m a junior right now, and I’ve been desperately looking for an internship. Going to TechConnect and the Career Fair—I’ve been given the opportunity to talk to maybe three medical device companies and two hardware companies. As someone who aspires to work with medical devices in the future, this pales in comparison to the number of finance companies, banks, software engineering opportunities, that my computer science or finance friends are afforded. I can spend hours scouring Career Connections, but there are minimal listings that resemble anything I want to do.”  TechConnect, while often advertised to engineering majors, really becomes a software engineering career fair, so a BME career fair similar to Georgia Tech’s could be vastly beneficial. 

Duke’s strong BME program is almost there, and my tone in these two columns may seem a little more critical than how I actually feel about my BME education. I understand that change is difficult to implement, and that I am by no means familiar with being an educator. I wrote these two columns not to criticize, but to offer an honest opinion of how I think the program can improve. 

Martin Li is a Pratt senior whose column usually runs on alternate Tuesdays. This column is part two of a two-part series reflecting upon Duke BME.

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