What defines a biomedical engineer?

The “easy” answer to that question can be found by asking another question: what do biomedical engineers do?  But I’m not here to answer that.  Many people already know that biomedical engineers fuse the studies of biology and medicine with traditional engineering to solve today’s most challenging problems, yadi yadi yada.  Trying to figure out what defines a biomedical engineer by asking what they do further complicates the question because biomedical engineers are creating solutions in clean energy, healthcare, material sciences, nanotechnology – we’re all over the place.  One biomedical engineer at Boston Scientific might work on creating a next-generation biocompatible material to form stents, and a different biomedical engineer might work on speech signal processing for the United States Army.

So, throw all that out the window.  I want to talk about what’s common to all biomedical engineers – what are our defining characteristics?


Beginning with our eduction, biomedical engineers are incessantly met with challenges.  My first day at Boston University, the Chairman of the Biomedical Engineering department stood in front of the 300 biomedical engineering freshman and said, “Look at the student to your left.  Now look at the student to your right.  Only one of you will graduate.  Those of you that persevere will become biomedical engineers.”  Sure enough, 4 years later, just 97 of us graduated biomedical engineers.  You don’t make it through differentiating 6-level integrals on paper, nearing suffocation while trying to determine breathable levels of CO2, and learning the ins-and outs of every facet of engineering and physiology without perseverance.  But the education is just preparation for the bigger challenges.  Throughout their careers, biomedical engineers strive to solve some of today’s most challenging problems: how can we better predict disease?  How can we make sure that no tumor goes undetected? How can we help the deaf hear, the blind see, and the mute speak?  While the challenges biomedical engineers face seem unsolvable, with perseverance they continue to solve impossible problems every day.

Problem solving

Like all engineers, biomedical engineers have a talent for breaking down problems into understandable elements to be observed and solved in a logical and efficient manner.  Problems often have multiple tiers, so being able to understand dependencies is essential – you don’t want to solve one problem only to create another.  For example, during my senior thesis we wanted to solve the problem of fabricating 3-dimensional synthetic microvasculature that could mimic the function of capillaries in synthetic tissues. This was the large-scale problem, but there were many other problems to be solved on multiple levels.  One high level problem we faced was how to mimic capillary function, which had many sub-problems that were interdependent.


Some of the problems we had to consider

Some of the problems we had to consider when designing synthetic microvasculature

Using these problem solving skills, biomedical engineers can succeed in many fields.  Many of us go on to become doctors, lawyers, material scientist, entrepreneurs, succeeding in each field using the sound problem-solving skills we learned as biomedical engineers.


I have several friends involved in research and, at one point or another, all of them have stayed late, worked over the weekend, and some have even taken below average pay because they’re passionate about their research.  I’m not saying biomedical engineers are underpaid, but when biomedical engineering is one of the fastest growing and well-paying fields and some of us accept lower pay to advance research, you know we’ve got passion.  Our passion isn’t just limited to research, though.  Biomedical engineers are passionate about everything we put our minds to, from sports to building companies to friendships and partying hard.  Once a biomedical engineer’s got something in his or her mind, they’ll be passionate about it until the end.

While there are many more characteristics that biomedical engineers have, I’ll end with just three for now.  For all you young guys thinking about potential career paths, if you have these qualities you might just feel right at home in a room full of biomedical engineers!

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