By Saswat Sahoo
What is biomedical engineering exactly? If you were to ask 100 different people, you would probably get 100 different answers. An all-encompassing answer would be something like applying engineering skills to biomedical problems. Personally, I don’t think this definition really does justice to biomedical engineering. However, even as a senior, I still struggle to come up with a precise definition just because the field is incredibly expansive. You could honestly write an entire book on what biomedical engineering entails.
This inherent diversity within biomedical engineering led me to realize that my definition of biomedical engineering is shaped by my experiences within the field.
As a high school student, I didn’t really know that BME was a possible major until it was time for college apps. As I researched potential majors, I came across a TED talk about engineering artificial organs by Dr. Anthony Atala, a professor at Wake Forest School of Medicine. The talk was absolutely inspiring — my high-school self couldn’t even begin to comprehend how one could 3D print a full-scale human organ. To me, it seemed radical at the time because you could essentially create something that was “living.” This gave me the idea that biomedical engineers were all-powerful — what other engineer could make living things? (Artificial intelligence doesn’t count). This realization marked the starting point for how I defined biomedical engineering — something that could make Westworld a reality.
However, that definition changed soon after I began my freshman year. I was annoyed by the fact that I wouldn’t really experience anything related to biomedical engineering in my courses until my sophomore year. So, I decided to join a BME lab as soon as I arrived on campus. Luckily, I became part of Professor Shuichi Takayama’s lab, known for using innovative microfluidic models to replicate human physiology. Although the lab didn’t focus on focus on 3D-printed organs, it actually turned out to be more than I could imagine. There were so many different projects, all focusing on developing tissue-engineered micro-models for different parts of the body (organ-on-a-chip). I heard from my peers as they joined different labs — all focused on different areas within BME. In addition to my own research experience, just talking about all the different projects that other students were working on definitely expanded my horizons — biomedical engineering was no longer confined to the human organ replicas that I once dreamt about creating.
In my junior year, I began learning more about medical devices through the Clinical Peer Mentor Program. Through collaborations with physicians at the U-M hospital, I began to gain deeper insight into the clinical landscape and the wide variety of medical problems encountered by patients and hospital staff. Although still related to medicine, this experience was unlike my research experiences. Nonetheless, it finally clicked — I began to understand what biomedical engineering was really about. For me, it wasn’t just medical devices or tissue engineering, it was about innovation — the ability to make new changes in healthcare through any way you deem fit, whether it be through industry or research.
Hence, biomedical engineering is whatever you make it to be. Anyone pursuing a career in biomedical engineering has the potential to specialize in any part of this expansive field and find their niche, whether it’s the medical device industry or research. The true definition of biomedical engineering is not something you look up online, but one that is personal, one that you form by yourself as you reflect on your past experiences. As you finish reading this post, ask yourself, what does biomedical engineering mean to you?