What Does it Mean To Be a Biomedical Engineer?

By Scott Mattison (@FoolsPizza)

In typical engineer fashion, instead of introducing myself and my field, I jumped in head first and published a few more technical articles. I am a young professor of Biomedical Engineering, and one basic question I am often asked is, “What is a biomedical engineer?” Surprisingly, this is a much more difficult and nuanced question to answer than it may seem.

We can start with the technical answer: as with most fields, biomedical engineering is a very broad discipline and has many different sub-specialties within it. Biomedical engineers might design prosthesis, improve instrumentation for hospitals, work in pharmaceuticals, develop physiological models, and even research artificial organs.

Biomedical Engineering
A sampling of the many different sub-disciplines of Biomedical Engineering. The Biomedical Engineering Society does an excellent job discussing a lot of these disciplines.

To meet the broad demands of their field, many degree programs in biomedical engineering provide their engineers with a broad engineering background in their first few years of school gaining skills in electrical and mechanical engineering as well as biology. As they progress through their degrees, biomedical engineers begin to focus their education into increasingly specialized backgrounds, which gives them a strong knowledge foundation in many fields and enhanced knowledge in their specialty.

Obviously, education is really only a small part of what defines a field. In the workplace, engineers wear many hats. Biomedical engineers have the technical knowledge and skills to work in most specialized engineering fields (electrical, mechanical, etc.), but also have the medical and scientific knowledge to communicate with doctors and researchers. This means that biomedical engineers get to bridge the gap between engineering and practice and apply their skills to two equally exciting, yet fundamentally different, fields.

Now that the technical answer is out of the way, I want to convey the more practical answer to this question. There is always a unique distinction between engineering and science, and biomedical engineers walk this line more than most. The rationale for this distinction is that the typically science seeks to develop knowledge and understanding of the physical universe whereas engineering attempts to apply scientific knowledge to the needs of society. To me, the line between science and engineering is actually rather blurry. No work exists in a vacuum and someone seeking to developing knowledge is often going to have an application for that knowledge in mind.

Biomedical engineering is a prime example of the interdependence of science and engineering. Scientists discover exciting new information about physics, chemistry, or biology and engineers turn these discoveries into new technologies which further feed scientific discovery and apply those discoveries toward tangible benefits. No one can  guess where the next big discovery will come from, and seemingly insignificant finds in science can eventually lead to huge breakthroughs in engineering (and vice-versa). Of course, this interplay does not merely exist between engineering and science but among and within various fields of science, wherein all discoveries feed into our bigger understanding of the world.

While I could continue to elaborate about the importance of collaboration between fields, I admit that I have deviated from my initial question: What does it mean to be a biomedical engineer? As a biomedical engineer, I personally feel a calling to not only perform innovative research in the fields of biology and medicine, but also to enhance the capabilities of the research projects of my peers. This feeds into my work in biomedical optics, where I develop new optical systems to study processes that I find fascinating as well as attempt to provide my peers with novel ways to obtain information about micro anatomy and cell organization.

It should be noted that this is merely my personal definition and is not the only possible one. Nearly any path may eventually lead people to the field of biomedical engineering; indeed, my graduate school mentor has a Ph.D. in Chemistry, but is clearly a biomedical engineer. In reality, anyone who is using engineering design techniques and processes to solve challenges in the fields of biology and medicine is working as a biomedical engineer.