January 11, 2008Her job: Professor - Biomedical Engineer, Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology
Describe what you do in your current work situation?
Hi! I'm a professor of biomedical engineering at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Indiana. Some people may not be familiar with biomedical engineering, so let me tell you first of all that biomedical engineers use math, science, and engineering to understand and help treat medical problems. My field of expertise is cell and tissue engineering. Cell and tissue engineers combine knowledge from sciences (like biology and chemistry) with principles from traditional engineering fields (like electrical, mechanical, or chemical engineering). The scientific knowledge helps us understand how cells and tissues work; then we use our engineering skills to develop methods to control how the cells and tissues function. For example, understanding how bones heal when they are broken or injured, helps me figure out which chemicals in the body "tell" bone cells to make new bone tissue. I can then put similar chemicals on the surface of a biomaterial. A dental or orthopedic implant made out of that biomaterial would "tell" bone cells to make bone at the tissue-implant interface, and the implant would heal quickly and strongly. This is one of the projects I’ve worked on in my laboratory! Other examples of cell and tissue engineering research are: understanding how mechanical or electrical stimuli can affect the functions of cells and tissues, figuring out how to grow tissues or organs in a laboratory for patients who need transplants, and discovering ways to get cells in a patient's body to function a certain way (for example, to make a tumor stop growing). I really enjoy biomedical engineering, but that’s only part of my job. I am a professor at a school that is dedicated to teaching engineering, mathematics, and science, and teaching is my main job! I also study ways to help people learn, and I help other teachers, professors, and trainers learn about teaching and learning.
Why did you choose engineering?
When I was in high school, I wanted to be a musician. Or a writer. Or a lawyer, maybe. I eventually decided to study engineering, because I liked science, because I wanted to be in a field that would let me do things to help people, and because I thought a degree in engineering would give me a good chance of having a steady job! Engineering seemed like a challenging field where I could always be learning new things, and it seemed like an important field, where people worked on making important things - everything from buildings to computers to medical equipment.
Where did you go to school and what degree(s) do you have?
I earned a B.S. in chemical engineering from Carnegie Mellon University. I went to graduate school at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where I earned M.Eng. and Ph.D. degrees in biomedical engineering.
What kinds of activities have typically been part of your work?
I’m a tissue engineer, which means I work with living cells and with biomaterials to try to create tissue replacements that are biologically and mechanically similar to natural tissues. So, I spend a lot of time growing (and feeding) cells! The cells have to be kept at the right temperature, with the right oxygen levels, and they need to be supplied with very specific types of culture medium on a regular schedule. I work with many different types of biomaterials: various polymers and metals, and lately I’ve been working with fibers and gels made of collagen, which is a very important structural protein in the human body. As a professor, I spend a lot of time preparing for my classes. I read books and journal articles, and attend professional conferences, so I can stay on top of the latest advancements in biomedical engineering and in engineering education. I give presentations at the conferences, describing what I’ve found in my research projects, and I get to learn from the things other people have recently discovered. One of the best parts about being a professor is that I am continually learning! I am always developing new examples, and explanations, and learning activities, always trying to find better ways to help students learn. So although I spend time doing some special technical activities (cell culture, microscopy, biomaterials science), you might be surprised to learn that as an engineer I spend a lot of time writing (things like articles, grant applications, etc.) and presenting information, and traveling.
What do you like best about being an engineer?
My favorite thing about my job is interacting with my students. They are interesting, bright, hard-working, and it’s a privilege and an honor to get to teach them things about the world. My next favorite thing about my job is that I get to ask questions about the world around me, and then do research to seek answers to my questions. I really like investigating things.
Which of your career accomplishments are you proudest of?
I used to say that my greatest professional accomplishment is that I’ve had students say (without sarcasm) things like "Class is over already?" and "Oh, come on. Can we keep going for just five more minutes!?" at the end of my classes. But actually, my greatest professional accomplishments are my students. I think back over all the people who’ve been in my classes - each person learned something new in those classes, each person gained some new understanding or insight, and each person carried their insight off into the world. How awesome is that?
What advice would you give to a young woman considering a career in engineering?
If I could give only one piece of advice to young women, it would be this: DON'T EVER APOLOGIZE FOR BEING WHO YOU ARE. Don't apologize for being smart, being strong, for looking like you look, thinking what you think, feeling how you feel. Don't waste your time worrying about what other people say or do. Just be strong. Be the woman you're meant to be.
Describe something about your life outside of work: your hobbies, or perhaps a favorite book.
When I come home from work, I like go outside and take a walk. I get some exercise and fresh air, and it gives me a little quiet time to decompress from the day. I like to read (especially science fiction), I enjoy watching old movies, I like to cook, and I like to knit. I always have two or three different knitting projects going on at the same time, usually something easy that I can work on while watching a movie, and something challenging. I’m working on a colorful sweater right now that is going to take me forever to finish. Sometimes I dye my own yarn, and then knit with that yarn to make a special project for someone.