Marjolein van der Meulen

Marjolein C van der Meulen

James M & Marsha McCormick Chair of Biomedical Engineering
Cornell University
Ithaca, NY, United States
Marjolein van der Meulen
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BS, Mechanical Engineering, MIT; MS, Mechanical Engineering, Stanford University; PhD, Mechanical Engineering, Stanford University
  • I am willing to be contacted by educators for possible speaking engagements in schools or in after school programs or summer camps.
Answers by Marjolein C van der Meulen


Biomedical engineers, mechanical engineers and materials engineers (or materials science and engineering majors) are all types of engineers who could be involved in creating joint replacements for orthopedics. Working in this area provides engineers the opportunity to design replacement joints that can be used in the clinic for both humans and animals. The principles for joint replacements, fracture fixation and other musculoskeletal procedures are similar, while the forces and specific anatomy can differ.

For example, I have been involved with testing hardware (fixation plates) in the laboratory that a veterinarian at our Companion Animal Hospital had designed for improving spine fusion in dogs. We compared the new plate design to the current treatment method using screws. Our goal was to demonstrate that the function for both methods would be similar when loaded because the surgery for the new plate was more straightforward and posed less risk to the spinal nerves.  

The spine consists of a series of bones (vertebrae) separated by soft “spacers” (intervertebral discs) and connected by muscles and ligaments. Some breeds of dogs are particularly prone to back problems due to intervertebral disc degeneration that are treated by eliminating motion of the painful segment by fusing two vertebrae together using screws and/or plates. Similar principles are used in human spine surgery, except that the loads we put on our spines as bipeds are different than quadrupeds.  These approaches also apply to other orthopedic procedures such as joint replacements. We have also worked with veterinarians to improve other musculoskeletal treatments, such as limb lengthening surgeries. The results of these types of experiments can improve treatments for both animals and humans.   


Virtually every engineering field can be applied to biological or medical questions, including not only chemical, electrical and mechanical engineering but also materials science and other engineering specialties.  My own training is in mechanical engineering, and I now work in orthopaedic biomechanics, which applies the concepts of mechanics to orthopaedic problems such as osteoporosis and fracture healing. For an idea of the breadth of biomechanics problems that are currently being researched, you can view the program of the recent World Congress of Biomechanics:  

For chemical or electrical engineering, you can find similar information by searching on "bioelectrical engineering" and "biochemical engineering."  As you will see, these areas are broad and can encompass many systems, more than I can possibly present here.  Remember that you also may have elective courses in your curriculum that will allow you to take further courses beyond the specific track you select and that allow you to further diversify. There are many interesting engineering applications in medicine, I'm sure you will enjoy your decision!  



Wow, tough question, and I don't have a good answer for you.  The subjects you list (Statics, Dynamics, Fluid Mechanics and Strength of Materials) together form much of the core of the undergraduate mechanical engineering major and each is generally at least a semester-long course.  I was an undergraduate mechanical engineering major so have a book (or two) on each subject.  As such I am not familiar with any concise review books, but imagine they must exist. These subjects also are taught online as MOOCs on sites such as EdX.  First you should make sure that your math skills, particularly calculus and differential equations, are up-to-par, and you might also need some programming tools such as as MATLAB. I know that MIT offers statics on EdX, see 2.01x; Mechanical Engineering is Course 2 at MIT.  The Khan Academy covers some of these topics in short videos in the Physics subject material. When I co-taught statics a couple years ago, we used "Statics and Mechanics of Materials" by Beer & Johnston, which is a good text and has lots of examples worked out, but is definitely not a concise review.  Good luck with your transition and MS degree.  



I'm glad to hear that you enjoy both biology and math, and are also interested in engineering.  That certainly suggests that biomedical engineering might be a good career choice since it combines all three.  Take a look through the Engineer Girl pages to check out the types of projects biomedical engineers work on, especially the non-academic types. Forbes Magazine just recently named Biomedical Engineering the #1 most valuable college major, but you should make sure it's a good fit for your interests.  

As far as experience for college applications, one engineering activity that comes to mind is the FIRST robotics program.  It's not directly biomedical engineering, but robotics applies to a range of different problems. I've not been involved with admissions, so I don't know how helpful it is to college applications, but FIRST is designed to engage in science, engineering and technology so the experience is generally relevant.  

Thanks for your question and good luck!





First of all, I am very happy to hear that you are interested in biomedical engineering! It's a great field, but then I may be a little biased since it's what I do.

Second, to address your question about whether biomedical engineering is very male dominated. Women are underrepresented in engineering fields in general, as you mention. This is a fact, not a stereotype: In the US in 2011, women received 18% of bachelor’s degrees, 23% of master’s degrees, and 22% of doctoral degrees (based on data published by the American Society of Engineering Education). I realize you are in London and the European numbers may be somewhat different, but probably not too substantially. However, as you can imagine, the distribution across different engineering specialties varies considerably. The highest percentage of bachelor's degrees awarded to women is in Environmental Engineering, with Biomedical Engineering coming in second. The percentage of women in biomedical engineering is around 40%, more than twice the overall engineering average. My own field, mechanical engineering, is around 12% female, which puts us below the overall average and close to the bottom. However, in biomechanics we definitely have a greater female representation than mechanical engineering as a whole.

In summary, I think you'll find biomedical engineering to have a healthy number of women students and lots of interesting opportunities. I encourage you to pursue the major.


Faith: First of all, I'm really happy that biomedical engineering interests you, since it's what I do and I love it! One of the interesting aspects of biomedical engineering is that nearly every traditional engineering discipline can be applied to human medical problems. As a result, all aspects of engineering can be found in some form in the biomedical arena. What this means for your specific question is that CAD, electronics, manufacturing and polymers all have biomedical applications and analogues. In practice, most biomedical engineers will end up specializing in only one of these areas, or even a totally different one not offered in your high school. Your high school program is likely trying to expose you to a range of engineering experiences so that you'll get a taste of the possibilities of a career in engineering, while at the same time making the material appropriate for a high school junior curriculum. The program does not sound specific to biomedical engineering so the examples and assignments will likely be based on more traditional material, although that will depend on the teacher and text and other factors that I can't judge from your message. It's really a luxury to have engineering coursework at the high school level, so you are very fortunate to have this option and should be careful dismissing it. That being said, if you really think the program will turn you off from engineering and you can get the important math and science subject matter in other ways, maybe you should not participate. I really don't have enough information to make a more specific recommendation, so I've tried to highlight the key points for you to consider.

Working in biomedical engineering, the decision to continue ones studies in graduate school or apply to medical school frequently arises. From your question, it is not clear to me whether you are considering majoring in engineering or already an undergraduate engineer. The good news is that both options are open to you as an undergraduate engineer. Generally, having research experience as an undergraduate helps with the decision process as may summer experiences in industry. In addition, the area one pursues in graduate school will affect whether you're primarily studying basic mechanisms or if your work is rapidly translated to the clinic. Both types of research exist. It sounds like translational research will be of more interest to you, and you will need to figure out which particular area you want to pursue. That being said, if your goal is primarily to have direct, daily interactions with patients, then medical school is likely your best route. Few engineers interact with patients on a daily basis, although there are some exceptions. Again, this decision does not need to be made before starting college as long as your coursework fulfills the premedical requirements, which many undergraduate curricula do. You have time to consider your options based on the experiences and information you accumulate as an undergraduate.