Ying-Ja Chen

Ying-Ja Chen

Ying-Ja Chen
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I studied bioengineering and electrical engineering in graduate school and undergraduate, respectively. Enjoying math and science is the primary reason why I chose those majors. After completing postdoctoral research, I now work as a Scientist in a biotechnology start-up company. My day-to-day involves analyzing the properties of protein molecules to determine what makes a better drug.

PhD, Bioengineering, University of California, San Diego. BS, Electrical Engineering, National Taiwan University
Answers by Dr. Ying-Ja Chen


In my experience, it is a bit easier for engineers who already have the math training to step into learning biology and become a biomedical engineer. Mechanical engineering prepares you to design devices as an engineer in industry, whereas biochemistry prepares you to do research on biomolecules. If your interest is in the intersection, you can choose either major and still take the core courses from both majors and better prepare for your future career.


 In my view, you are on the right track. Coming up with treatments for cancer or building prosthetics can be tackled from several angles. A biomechanics focus allows you to study how cancer cells respond to mechanical stimuli differently from normal cells, or to design prosthetics that aid in the mechanical movement of a body part. While med school provides the clinical training of appreciating how diseases are currently being treated, some people prefer to go to graduate school and focus on the research and development of new treatment methods or devices for diseases. You may want to find an internship at a medical device company to get experience in the work of a biomechanical engineer before deciding on your future.

Math is a tool for studying and understanding science. In engineering, we often need to calculate things to better understand the science of a phenomena or design. In college, many of the courses will involve math. However, once you start working, the amount of math you encounter will depend on the type of work you do. Although you may use some simple calculations and statistics for work, you may not need the advanced math in many biomedical engineering fields, especially when you concentrate in biotechnology.

Math (including statistics) and science (chemistry and physics) are the most important classes to prepare for a biomedical engineering major. In addition, you may consider taking biology or anything related to health, and computer programming.

Chemical engineers, biological engineers, plant biologists, agricultural biologists, microbiologists, and food scientists are some of the many disciplines that may work on genetically modified food. However, that's not all that they do. If this is a topic you are interested in, you can major in any of the above and do research projects in labs that work on related projects.


An engineering degree provides you with the basic training in a technical field. It doesn't mean you will always go on to be an engineer that only faces machines all day. I see the engineering degree as a ticket to the technical world in the highly professional and high-paying industry. In industry that sells technology products, there are many job functions that interacts with people on a daily basis including technical support, technical sales, product marketing, and project management. In these positions, you need to provide service or try to sell technical products using your technical background combined with interpersonal skills. An engineering degree can be combined with MD, MBA, or JD for more other specialties that are often higher positions in the technical industry. MDs and MBAs with engineering background often allows you to be in a higher management position in medical device, biotechnology, or other high-tech industries performing job functions such as clinical or business development. In these decision-making positions, your engineering background provides you the necessary technical understanding to make the best decision. Many engineers with or without a JD become patent lawyers or patent officers. Although these positions may not interact with people as much as you like, these are other possibilities that require engineering degrees. I hope this gives you a broad overview of the technical industry and possibilities.

A good biomedical engineer should be interested in solving biological or medical problems. Some people think of new prosthesis devices or therapeutic delivery agents as examples, but you should not limit yourself to what you have seen. You are only limited by your imagination. There are several skills that you will need to become a true engineer with the ability to solve those questions. You will need to use a lot of math, and understand the fundamentals of physics and chemistry very well. Those subjects teach you design principles an engineer needs. And of course, you need to understand the biology of the problem you are trying to solve. Some well-renowned biomedical engineering programs in the country include these: Johns Hopkins, UCSD, Georgia Tech, MIT, UW (Seattle). After 4 years of college training, you would have many job options as a biomedical engineer. One or 2 more years of masters training might start you at a higher salary. These job functions can be engineers in a medical device company or research associates in biotechnology or pharmaceutical companies. You may work in research and development, manufacturing, or quality assurance departments. Some people prefer to go to medical school or graduate school after college. Those will take another 5 years before you become a medical doctor, or a Ph.D. who can become a professor or work as senior engineers/research scientists in the companies mentioned above.

Nanotechnology is a interdisciplinary field. Scientists and Engineers in physics, chemistry, material science, mechanical, electrical, chemical, and biomedical engineering are working together in this field. Some schools, such as UCSD are starting NanoEngineering majors. In other places, going into any of the above majors can lead to a potential career in nanotechnology. Engineering math is taught in any of these engineering majors and is a useful tool. A profound understanding of physics and chemistry will be important too. Physics, mechanical, and electrical engineering may emphasize more on physics, where as chemistry, chemical, and biomedical engineering will give you more training on chemistry. Material science is probably a little of both. Based on your other interests, you can choose any of these majors.