Guide to College Majors in Engineering

The cloning of humans is on most of the lists of things to worry about from Science, along with behaviour control, genetic engineering, transplanted heads, computer poetry and the unrestrained growth of plastic flowers.
--Lewis Thomas

What Is Bioengineering?

Exact definitions of bioengineering can differ slightly. Most academics would agree that bioengineering involves using the principles of engineering to develop solutions for health-related products and techniques that improve the quality of life. But from there, it can take off in slightly different directions, depending on the focus of a specific program or research project.

The National Institutes of Health defines bioengineering as "the application of the life sciences, mathematics and engineering principles to define and solve problems in biology, medicine, healthcare, and other fields." Some practitioners want to apply bioengineering to any engineering discipline that works with a living system. That would include humans, plants, and even microscopic organisms, in addition to some aspects of agricultural engineering and national defense.

A few degree programs use the term "biomedical engineering" synonymously with bioengineering. Other schools' biomedical engineering programs emphasize applications in medicine and health care, and reserve "bioengineering" to emphasize non-medical applications, such as artificial intelligence or agricultural engineering. The term bioengineering will be used broadly here, but when considering colleges, it is important to research just what each school means by the term and what each program offers.

Despite differences in terminology and focus, bioengineering is a rapidly growing academic discipline across the United States. Student demand has led many universities to add programs at the undergraduate, master's and Ph.D. levels. These new degree offerings have drawn many working professionals and medical practitioners back to school, often part-time or online, so they can stay current in the profession and get ahead in their careers. For experienced engineers who have already mastered the hands-on aspects of training, online degrees in bioengineering allow them to further their careers without sacrificing continued experience.

Although bioengineering may encompass many areas, one of its primary functions is to develop better solutions for the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of disease; patient rehabilitation; and to improve health.

Bioengineering has been vital in developing:

  • Artificial hips, knees and other joints
  • Ultrasound, MRI and other medical imaging techniques
  • Engineered organisms for chemical and pharmaceutical manufacturing
  • Pacemakers, dialysis machines, and diagnostic equipment

What Does a Bioengineering Major Do?

Because bioengineering combines the two major disciplines of biology and engineering, bioengineers have a wide variety of career choices. Some graduates may work alongside medical practitioners, developing new medical techniques, medical devices, and instrumentation for manufacturing companies. Hospitals and clinics employ clinical engineers to maintain and improve the technological support systems used for patient care. Graduates with advanced bioengineering degrees perform biological and medical research in educational and governmental research laboratories.

Bioengineering often applies traditional engineering expertise to human applications in medicine. Many bioengineering professionals seek to help people by solving complex problems in medicine and healthcare. Some bioengineering jobs combine several disciplines, requiring a diverse array of skills. Digital hearing aids, implantable defibrillators, artificial heart valves, and pacemakers are all bioengineering products that help people combat disease and disability. Bioengineers develop advanced therapeutic and surgical devices, such as a laser system for eye surgery and a device that regulates automated delivery of insulin.

Bioengineering techniques have led to major scientific breakthroughs, such as:

  • Ultrasound
  • Computer-assisted tomography
  • Magnetic resonance imaging
  • Other medical imaging systems

Bioengineers conduct research in many areas. In genetics, for example, engineers try to detect, prevent, and treat genetic diseases. Sports medicine bioengineers develop rehabilitation and external support devices. Medical research bioengineering specialists also examine rehabilitation and assisted living techniques. In industry, bioengineers conduct research and create designs for a more in-depth understanding of living systems and technology. Government researchers often work in product testing and safety, where they establish safety standards for medical devices. A biomedical engineer employed in a hospital might advise on the selection and use of medical equipment or supervise performance testing and maintenance.

Bioengineers design artificial joints, tissues and organs. They create artificial devices that substitute for missing body parts, including hearing aids, cardiac pacemakers, artificial kidneys and hearts, blood oxygenators, synthetic blood vessels, joints, arms, and legs. The devices used by medical professionals to diagnose and treat ailments are designed by bioengineers. Some examples of these innovative tools are the computers that analyze blood, the laser systems used during corrective eye surgeries, and medical imaging devices such as MRI and CT scanners.

Bioengineering is not confined to designing and producing medical devices. It can include any situation in which technology interacts with a living system. Because the discipline encompasses a broad range of knowledge, it is vital that bioengineers be mentally flexible. They must be willing to experiment with techniques from other industries and to work with people from other disciplines. Developing a kidney machine, for example, requires combining several different engineering specialties. It incorporates water treatment and purification, heating and temperature control, measurement systems for flow and pressure, electrolytes, alarm systems for monitoring vital signs, data collection and processing, ergonomics, and electrical safety.

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Career Education in Bioengineering

A core college curriculum in bioengineering will be heavy in math, physics, chemistry and biology. Other courses that will help include computer science and communication classes that emphasize verbal skills. Bioengineering involves a great deal of interaction with other professionals and that requires communicating effectively.

Preparation for bioengineering is similar to any other engineering discipline--except life science courses should also be included. When available, advanced placement courses in these areas are beneficial. At the college level, the most common option is to earn an engineering degree with a specialization in bioengineering.

College degrees in bioengineering often emphasize particular aspects of the biomedical industries, such as prosthetic devices or medical instrumentation; other programs emphasize bioengineering as a pre-med major. Courses in chemical, electrical, or mechanical engineering constitute a major portion of the curriculum for many programs.

Many students earn their college degrees in a different engineering specialty and then move into bioengineering for a master's degree or doctorate. Most graduate-level programs look for students who have a background in engineering or science. Typically, a graduate program will seek students with some mix of coursework in calculus, physics, chemistry, and biology. Bioengineering must be studied in a lab, but many of these preparatory college degrees may be earned online by busy working adults.

Is an Advanced Degree Necessary for a Bioengineering Career?

Although many engineering specialties do not require a graduate degree, it is typically recommended or even required for entry-level jobs in bioengineering. The combination of knowledge in biology and engineering is often more than can be mastered in a single undergraduate program. A master's degree is preferred. Doctorates are more typical for those who want to advance into research, especially at a university.

Survey results have repeatedly confirmed that almost a third of graduates obtaining a B.S. in bioengineering go on to medical school, a third go on to graduate school, and a third go straight into the workforce.

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What Can You Do With a College Degree in Bioengineering?

Because bioengineering is such a broad discipline, preparing students for a bioengineering degree is a challenge for any program. Becoming a good engineer is the first prerequisite for a career in bioengineering. After that, students should acquire a working knowledge of the life sciences.

Some students will have an opportunity to major in bioengineering. Others may combine on-campus or online engineering degrees with additional biology classes. If a bioengineering specialty is not available at your college, you still have an opportunity to obtain a master's degree in bioengineering elsewhere. Graduates should be able to demonstrate well-defined engineering skills that apply to the biomedical field when entering the job market. This can include a major project or practical experience through work or an internship.

Bioengineers generally have their choice of jobs in hospitals, universities, industry, or research laboratories. They're employed by medical device manufacturers, pharmaceutical companies, regulatory agencies and medical research institutions. Bioengineering graduates are often qualified to pursue advanced study for careers in medicine, law, business, education, and other fields. As technology advances, new jobs and fields of research are constantly appearing. Computer-assisted surgery, for example, as well as molecular, cellular, and tissue engineering, are developing rapidly. Rehabilitation and orthopedic engineering specialties also are growing quickly.

The Biomedical Engineering Society has developed a list of some specialty areas in bioengineering, including:

  • Bioinstrumentation, which applies electronics and measurement techniques to create devices used in diagnosis and treatment of disease.
  • Biomaterials, involving living tissue and artificial materials that are implanted in individuals. This specialty requires a deep understanding of living material.
  • Classical mechanics, such as statics, dynamics, fluids, solids, thermodynamics, and continuum mechanics, which are applied to solve medical problems through biomechanics. Developments in this area have led to the artificial heart and valves, artificial joint replacements, bone cartilage, and tendons of the musculoskeletal system.
  • Cellular, tissue and genetic engineering, using the anatomy, biochemistry and mechanics of cellular and sub-cellular structures to attack biomedical problems at the microscopic level.
  • Clinical engineering, involving the development and maintenance of computer databases of medical instrumentation and equipment records. Clinical engineers often work with physicians to develop instrumentation that applies the latest technology to a specific healthcare system.
  • Medical imaging, which generates an image for physicians that can be used in diagnosis or patient treatment.
  • Orthopedic bioengineering, examining the friction, lubrication and wear characteristics of natural and artificial joints. Orthopedic engineers perform stress analysis of the musculoskeletal system, and develop artificial biomaterials for replacement.
  • Rehabilitation engineering, a growing specialty whose function is to enhance the capabilities and improve the quality of life for people with physical and cognitive impairments. This niche includes prosthetics, the development of home, workplace and transportation modifications, and the design of technology to enhance seating, positioning, mobility, and communication.
  • Systems physiology, involving the engineering strategies, techniques, and tools needed to understand the function of all living organisms, from bacteria to humans.
  • Consulting. This career choice is particularly inviting for someone who prefers variety in work assignments. Besides solid credentials in the field, consulting also requires some business and entrepreneurial expertise and substantial communication skills.
  • Teaching. The growing number of bioengineering degree programs has increased the need for college-level instructors. Teaching bioengineering at the university level, however, is likely to require a doctoral degree along with professional experience.

Bioengineering Career Trends

The Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) counted about 16,000 biomedical engineering jobs in 2008, and projected a 20% increase in positions through 2018. Most bioengineering specialists work in manufacturing industries, such as pharmaceutical manufacturing, medical instrument development, and health care supply. Many others work for hospitals, government agencies, or as independent contractors or consultants.

An aging population, focused on health and quality of life issues, has increased the demand for better medical devices and equipment. Coupled with this long-term trend is an industrial concern for cost efficiency and effectiveness. This requires the talent of biomedical engineers.

Universities across the United States are adding bioengineering to their curricula as a separate department or as an engineering specialty. The growing interest in this field has increased the number of degrees granted in biomedical engineering. Students who do not begin their bioengineering degree programs soon will likely face stiffer competition for jobs, despite the growth in this field.

Salary Information for Careers in Bioengineering

Median annual earnings for biomedical engineers in 2009, according to the BLS, were $78,860. About 45% of workers in this field hold only a bachelor's degree; a Georgetown University report based on 2009 U.S. Census data found that those workers earned a median annual wage of $68,000.

Additional Information

For further information about bioengineering and biomedical engineering careers:

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