Coming into Pitt BioE, I knew that wanted to help people. That was my only career goal, and that was why I chose bioengineering over other types of engineering. All too often, I found myself caught in the minutia of pursuing my degree. Exams, research, and projects have a way of wearing on you to the point where school becomes a chore, and you wonder why you’re doing all of this work for a hazy idea of a future where you “help people”. As a senior graduating in December 2016, it is difficult to determine if this question is a result of burnout or something bigger—was bioengineering the right choice for me? Where are these doubts coming from?
These questions must be answered outside of the context of a classroom and I encourage everyone to begin this thought process before second semester senior year. We are all the sum of our own experiences, so I decided to reflect on mine to see what pushed me into bioengineering in the first place, and how change and personal growth throughout my undergraduate experience might have altered my goals. I choose BioE because I was a big runner in high school, and was curious about the biomechanics of running and the design of prosthetics. I was also really good at math and science compared to my peers, and both of my parents were engineers. Engineering seemed like a no-brainer and bioengineering allowed me to pursue my perceived interests at the time. Freshman and sophomore year at Pitt were pretty uneventful: I didn’t like cell bio so I decided that my concentration should be in devices or biomechanics. I chose to pursue an industrial engineering minor because I was interested in the logic that goes into decision making in engineering, and IE classes address decision making from all sorts of vantage points. Somewhere in those two years, I decided that I wanted to go into industry after I graduate, to make devices that help people. I worked at Bayer the summer after my sophomore year to make some money and get more experience in the industrial field.
I ended up getting pretty sick going into my junior year. I spent some time in hospitals, and was a part-time student during fall of junior year to facilitate my recovery. As cliché as it sounds, I began to appreciate how fortunate I was— my illness was really treatable and I had access to great healthcare at Pitt. I made a full recovery by December. I think this is where my interests and career goals changed. In my diagnostic workup, I received a few scans with contrast dye, and the contrast pump that my hospital used was the same one that I had worked on in my manufacturing role at Bayer. It was “bench-to-bedside” medicine on an entirely different scale, and something that I knew I should have been fascinated with. For some reason, though, I wasn’t. The devices weren’t the most interesting part of my experience—the people were. I met so many intelligent, kind patients whose bodies were just failing them. My focus in bioengineering changed from “how” back to “why.” And I found the answer to be in those patients and their stories.
I’m still trying to translate this revelation into a career path that is exciting to me. I’ve found that the best part of bioengineering is its versatility—you can go to engineering industry, medical practice of some kind, law school, grad school, or a career in a different sector. The curriculum teaches analytical thinking with an appreciation for anatomy and physiology, which prepares us well for a wide variety of fields. I’m looking at advocacy and global health positions with NGOs and non-profits for the time being, and hope to return to grad school for a PhD in epidemiology or something else in the public health sector after a few years of work. At least, that’s the plan for now. Staying fluid with my goals has forced me to understand myself and regularly reflect on my decisions and motivations, and this has made my job search and undergraduate career a much more dynamic process. My main takeaway from Pitt BioE, however, is that you can make of it what you want—talk to professors, alumni, and fellow students to see why they are here, how they got here, and where they are going. The path to career satisfaction is unlikely to be linear (or BIBO stable), and regular evaluation, reflection, and questioning can only help in the long run.
Michelle is a senior biomedical engineering major and industrial engineering minor. She is passionate about using what she has learned in school in the healthcare context, specifically in applying novel healthcare technologies and solutions to meet needs for chronic disease patients and work towards solving global health problems. After she graduates in December 2016, she is interested in working with a nonprofit, public health oriented company on R&D funding decision strategies and epidemiological modeling.