What led you to choose science and/or engineering as a career, particularly in the medical device field?
I came from a family of engineers and scientists; my father was the Chief Engineer of the Apollo 11 Command Module, and my mother was a NASA Computer. I was lucky to have tremendous support and not a little pressure to study engineering. I picked electrical engineering because it sounded reasonably interesting (and it made the most money!). I worked on the power system for the International Space Station and discovered a love for biomedical engineering when working with the astronauts and learning about their support systems. I went back for my PhD in BME and intended to work for NASA upon graduation. But the opportunity to start a new BME program at University of Arizona caught my attention, and I’m still enjoying my position over 20 years later.
What has been your most rewarding moment/accomplishment as an engineer/scientist in the medical field?
My lab designs miniature endoscopes for the early detection of ovarian cancer. The first time I saw one of my prototypes in a gynecological surgeon’s hand, successfully taking images in a patient, I was so excited. We still have a long way to go, but the tremendous advances in optics and photonics technology, as well as biological understanding of this terrible disease, are making a solution to early detection feasible.
What advice would you give to other women looking to work in biomedical engineering and science?
Biomedical engineering is an exciting field. I think because it is relatively new, there is a can-do and welcoming culture. It is one of the very few engineering fields with nearly equal representation of women and men, at least at the student level. It’s also a very broad field so I recommend figuring out what type of biomedical engineering is most interesting and concentrating coursework and training in that area. Like most fields nowadays, it is critical to get hands-on experience through internships in industry and research labs, and to independently pick up skills like data analysis or solid modeling. I tell my students that their coursework is only half of their education.
Are there other insights you would like to share?
Biomedical Engineering is by its nature collaborative — BMEs almost always work in teams with other engineers, scientists, and medical personnel. Team skills are critically important — both being a leader and being a good team member. This is another skill set not normally taught, and team dynamics are a source of frustration for almost everyone at some point. I encourage people to get experience working in teams, to seek out formal team science training, and to have plenty of mentors (they can be informal) who can provide advice.
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