SWE member Amanda Edwards is a Biomedical Engineer: Find out how she got there, the type of projects she’s working on, and how you can #BeThatEngineer!
I grew up inventing, crafting, and building things with the limited supplies I had around the house – tape, string, cardboard, and the like. Both of my parents were engineers, so I was initially determined to not be an engineer because that was what my parents did. However, eventually I realized that inventing and building things was really what I enjoyed doing most, so I decided to study Mechanical Engineering. While I was in college, I read a book about neuroplasticity, called The Brain That Changes Itself. I already knew I wanted to build things that helped people, but that book sparked my interest in the bridge between neuroscience and engineering.
I attended the University of Florida for my bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering. While I was there, I did a few different research projects. One was a summer Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program at Case Western Reserve University. At Case Western, I had the opportunity to work on a project developing a nerve stimulation device which helped with swallowing in stroke patients. This opportunity gave me my best introduction to regular “lab life.” This allowed me, within two years of reading that neuro book, to get experience in the neural engineering field and to put my inventive skills to use in a project that had an important patient-centered goal. I also did an independent research project where I invented a hands-free crutch, which has since been patented. I then went on to Johns Hopkins University to work on my Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering. I just defended my thesis, and I am in the middle of the interview process now for opportunities in the research and development side of industry, the post-doctoral research side of academia, and government-funded research and development labs.
My graduate work focuses on patients with damage to the cerebellum, a part of the brain that is important for motion planning, coordination, and motor learning. When it is damaged, patients exhibit poorly coordinated, oscillatory movements, which is colloquially described as “moving like they’re drunk.” Unfortunately, treatment for these patients is extremely limited. I developed two different intervention techniques to attempt to improve their movements. As a graduate student, I had the opportunity to get to know these patients personally. I tested my non-invasive interventions on patients who came into the lab. I measured how well the interventions helped by having the patients do virtual reality reaching tasks in an exoskeleton robot.
As a Ph.D. student, I have had a lot of flexibility in determining what kinds of questions I wanted to investigate. My favorite questions revolve around, “How can I make this patient better?” Developing interventions to potentially help patients is a lot of fun.
Generally, I have been impressed by the acceptance and support that I have witnessed in the academic setting for female engineers. I don’t think any of the challenges I have faced as a woman in the workforce in engineering have been any worse than that which women experience in the workforce in general. I try to prepare myself accordingly if I am going to be in any sort of negotiation-type scenario. For example, when meeting with a patent lawyer, I asked my father to come with me to help lend me a level of credibility. It is always easier to get out-negotiated as an individual, especially a young, female individual who is still in school. If you have the option, having an extra person on your side is always helpful.
Biomedical Engineering is a very broad field. If you know what kind of Biomedical Engineering work you want to do, I would strongly encourage developing the raw skills you will need for that work while you are in undergraduate school. This means you may need to do an undergraduate degree in another type of engineering. For example, I knew I wanted to build things, so I got a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering. Without that background, I wouldn’t have had the background necessary to do the type of building I did in graduate school. While there can be advantages to getting an undergraduate degree in Biomedical Engineering, you might not have the depth in any one part of the field to really be an expert at doing that thing. Job hunting with a bachelor’s in Biomedical Engineering can also be extra challenging because your experience may be broader and shallower than someone in a more pointed field.
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