Name: Phillip Dowzicky
Year: Class of 2009
Hometown: Collegeville, PA
Major: Biomedical Engineering
BME: BEST MAJOR EVER?!
Hello Everyone! I get the privilege of detailing the ins and outs of the most infamous major here at Hopkins: Biomedical Engineering. The mere mention of this phrase, or its more commonly referred to acronym BME, without fail will elicit a response from your audience. Whether it’s a facial cringe, a bulging of the eyes, a puzzled inquiry, or a snicker of laughter, it seems like everyone in the world has some opinion about our wonderful department. It is my goal to provide you the most accurate description of Johns Hopkins Biomedical Engineering the world has ever seen; no myths, no sugar-coating, no horror stories. But wait, how can the untold story of Biomedical Engineering not have any horror stories?! Well, maybe I will find room for one or two…
First things first, what in the world does a biomedical engineer actually do and why would anyone in their right mind commit to what appears on the surface to be such a grueling endeavor? Biomedical engineering in the broadest sense is the application of engineering principles to medicine. Biomedical engineers develop new imaging techniques to be used in the operating room, design modeling software to predict how an individual will respond to certain drug therapies, create implantable prosthetics or devices for the ailing or injured, etc. While it may be tough to see yourself doing these things right out of high school, believe me when I say you will be given the tools and experiences to contribute to the development of ideas along these lines once you have put in the time in BME. On a side note I would like to mention that BME IS NOT A GLORIFIED PRE-MEDICAL MECCA WHERE YOU BASK IN THE SUNLIGHT ALL DAY DRINKING PIÑA COLADAS ON “THE BEACH.” While it is true that nearly a quarter of each BME class goes on to medical school, myself included, you will be committing yourself to four years of pure pain and torture if your sole purpose is to better prepare yourself for medical school. You need to love mathematics and the idea of research, because that is what the core of our program is centered on.
Now before I go into the ins and outs of our program and how I came to my chosen career path, I would like to mention how I knew that BME was what I wanted to pursue in college. In high school I loved science and was adept at math. I knew that I wanted to be an engineer because I have always needed to understand how and why things work, especially when it comes to the human body. The concept of wanting to know why is the crux of all engineering disciplines. If you are just content knowing that something will work, then engineering is probably not for you. Luckily for me, Johns Hopkins had the biomedical engineering major that appeared to combine my medical interest with my lust for understanding how the world works. While I had heard stories about how difficult the major was, this did not deter me as I felt like I was up for the challenge. Ultimately, fate smiled upon me and I got accepted into the program and have never looked back. I love the idea of BME, the wealth of information that we learn, and all of the challenges as well as the opportunities we face.
As a BME major, you should have taken as much science and math, preferably at the highest level your school offers, as possible so that you will be prepared to step right into the major and be successful. As an undergraduate in the major, you are required to take introductory physics, chemistry, and organic chemistry as well as the associated labs. You are also required to take mathematics courses up through and including differential equations in addition to probability and statistics. This is not to say that your introduction to mathematics ends there. You will learn to love Fourier and Laplace Transforms as they are necessary to most of your core BME classes. They are the main tools engineers use to manipulate data and to design complicated feedback mechanisms (if that last paragraph sounded like complete gibberish to you that’s fine, it would have sounded the same way to me too when I was in high school but these are just some of the awesome things you get to look forward to!)
While there have been some classes that I hope I never have to think about again, the vast majority of my classes have been enjoyable to go to and I have not felt like I was actually in class during them. My favorite of these classes was our three semester-long Systems Bioengineering Course. The first semester provided us with all the details of cardiovascular system physiology and the very basis for how human life is functional: ion channels. I thought it was so cool when we got to mathematically model the electrophysiology of the heart and to see that just a small defect in the muscle of the heart can lead to complete ventricular failure. Did you know that the contraction of heart cells is entirely dependent upon the presence of no more than ten calcium ions in a very specific area of the cell? Yes, that is ten single ions, not ten moles, not ten grams, ten individual ions. The second semester was a thorough introduction to nervous system physiology, with in-depth analysis of the mechanics behind cochlear implants, how our brain interprets and sorts the myriad of stimuli we are receiving on a constant basis, and the equations that modulate neural networks. The final class that I would like to highlight is our microfabrication laboratory, which is a favorite amongst students.
Microfabrication is the construction of devices and or parts that are no more than 100 microns large. The future of technology, especially in medicine, is going to be on devices that are not visible with the naked eye; thus being able to get practical experience with tools and techniques that are used to create these structures was a truly rewarding experience. In case you guys have not realized, I have loved our curriculum and think that once you have completed your four years of BME undergrad, you will have learned so much more than you could have ever realized.
Not only are the classes fascinating, but the opportunities to do real-world project design as well as research are second to none. Every student that is part of the BME program must be on a design team as freshmen, and essentially now with the new requirements, junior or senior year as well. As freshmen, students will work in groups of six doing smaller projects to get introduced to what engineers do for the first semester. Then, they are drafted by seniors who have been working on a project for that first semester that a doctor or engineering professional has sponsored aimed at a specific clinical need. For example, my freshman year we built and tested a prototype that attempted to shorten the suturing time required for ascending aortic aneurysm surgeries. We interacted directly with one of the cardiac surgeons at the Hopkins Hospital who did these surgeries frequently. While our ultimate device did not pan out, the process was very informative and we got a very vivid picture of what designing actual devices entails. There are a slew of business plan competitions that are entered in and won by BME design teams on a yearly basis and students are always getting patents for their ideas or companies to continue funding their projects once the students graduate.
Research is another huge part of BME life and I can say without hesitation that nearly everyone works in a lab at one point or another while an undergrad in BME. I have spent two years in a cardiovascular biology lab attempting to characterize the expression patterns of a protein that is differentially expressed in the aging population. While this is more of a molecular biology lab, there are other students who train monkeys to perform visual-motor tasks in an attempt to locate which regions of the brain are responsible for certain complex thought processes. The faculty here is world renowned and you will most certainly find a lab that interests you at least a little bit!
Ultimately, I am planning on going into medical school once I graduate BME, however while in medical school and throughout the rest of my life research will be part of my life. I did not decide I wanted to go to medical school until midway through my junior year when I actually started to sit down and think about what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I think that BME has taught me thought processes that will be especially useful when solving real-world problems as a doctor as well as understanding where companies and individuals designing the devices I will be implanting into patients are coming from. In my mind, being a doctor should incorporate being able to treat patients one at a time while also being able to conduct research projects that are aimed at understanding how certain systems function at their most basic level. Out of my seven closest BME friends, I am the only one applying to medical school, which is a direct result of my desire to deal and treat patients on a continual basis, not because I wouldn’t love working in industry designing cutting edge technologies.
Well, if you guys have survived reading my chit-chatting this long then you will definitely be able to survive BME no sweat! But seriously, it is an awesome program that while taxing at times, ends up being well worth the effort if anything I have mentioned along the way piques your fancy. Thanks for reading and if you have any questions feel free to post a comment!
To further your exploration of this academic program and ask any question you may have of current students, be sure to visit the Hopkins Forums’ Academics: The Insider Perspective as well as our Biomedical Engineering questions thread.