Exact definitions of bioengineering can differ slightly. At its core, this blossoming field is the joining of biology with engineering. But, from there, it can take off in slightly different directions depending on the focus of a university's specific program. However, 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.
The National Institutes of Health define bioengineering as "the application of the life sciences, mathematics and engineering principles to define and solve problems in biology, medicine, healthcare, and other fields." A few practitioners want to apply bioengineering to any engineering discipline that works with a living system. That would include humans, plants, and even microscopic organizations, in addition to some aspects of agricultural engineering and national defense.
A few programs use "biomedical engineering" synonymously with bioengineering. Other schools use biomedical engineering to emphasize applications in medicine and health care. The deans of some programs use bioengineering to emphasize non-medical applications, such as artificial intelligence or agricultural engineering. Because of these differences, the term bioengineering will be used broadly here. For instance, this article will include references to biomedical engineering. When considering colleges, it is important to understand just what each school means by the term and what each program offers.
Despite differences in terminology, bioengineering is a rapidly growing academic discipline in colleges 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 attractive working professionals and medical practitioners to return to school, in many cases on part-time schedules, so they can fully examine new breakthroughs.
Although bioengineering may encompass many areas, one of its primary functions is to develop approaches
for the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of disease,
for patient rehabilitation, and
for improving health.
Bio-engineering 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; and
pacemakers, dialysis machines, and diagnostic equipment.
Because bio-engineering combines two major disciplines, bio-engineers must grapple with a wide variety of problems. Some graduates may work as bio-medical engineers alongside medical practitioners. In those settings, bio-engineering professionals develop new medical techniques, medical devices, and instrumentation for manufacturing companies.
Hospitals and clinics employ clinical engineers to maintain and improve the technological support systems necessary to provide innovative patient care. Graduates with advanced bio-engineering degrees perform research related to biology and medicine in educational and governmental research laboratories.
Much of what bio-engineers do links traditional engineering expertise to human applications in medicine. Many bio-engineering professionals choose their profession so they can help people by solving complex problems in medicine and health care. Some bio-engineering jobs combine several disciplines, requiring a diverse array of skills from job seekers.
Digital hearing aids, implantable defibrillators, artificial heart valves, and pacemakers are all bio-engineering products that help people combat disease and disability. Bio-engineers develop advanced therapeutic and surgical devices, such as a laser system for eye surgery and a device that regulates automated delivery of insulin. Bio-engineering techniques have led to scientific breakthroughs, such as:
magnetic resonance imaging, and
other medical imaging systems.
Bio-engineers conduct research in many areas. In genetics, for example, engineers try to detect, prevent, and treat genetic diseases. They more generally aim to control an individual organism's physical appearance or the specific manifestation of a trait by manipulating genotypes. This can be useful in genetically engineering agricultural crops to be more disease-resistant, larger, more nutritious, or better tasting.
Graduates of bio-engineering degree programs perform research in sports medicine to develop rehabilitation and external support devices. This research can include studying the bio-mechanics of injury and wound healing or bio-material design. Using their data, professionals can understand the mechanical, transport, and bio-compatibility properties of artificial materials for implants. Medical research bio-engineering specialists also examine rehabilitation and assisted living techniques. Here, they might test electromechanical systems that help victims of paralysis control their limbs. By combining state of the art robotics, fast new microprocessors, and innovations in nerve cell cultivation, bio-engineers have successfully helped amputees regain sensation in artificial limbs. With time, experts hope to use bio-engineering breakthroughs to restore mobility to paralysis victims.
In industry, bio-engineers 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 bio-medical engineer employed in a hospital might advise on the selection and use of medical equipment or supervise performance testing and maintenance.
Bio-engineers design artificial joints, tissues and organs. They create artificial devices that substitute for missing body parts. These prostheses are typically used to replace body parts that were lost by injury, missing from birth, or otherwise defective. Designing and improving artificial organs is a part of this specialty. They types of products that these specialists can produce include 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.
Areas of technical design include sensor technology. Researchers insert tiny sensors into a patient's organs to monitor if there has been any deterioration in the organs' condition. These advanced monitoring systems can provide crucial advance warning for surgeons and specialists who can save a patient's life when notified quickly. Bio-engineers have recently integrated sensor technology with wireless Internet and cellular telephone networks. As a result, patients that might have once been confined to a hospital wing can enjoy field trips or even return to work quickly.
Doctors can now perform what is called "keyhole surgery" because of equipment designed by bio-engineers. This entails a minimally invasive medical procedure carried out by entering the body through the skin or through a body cavity or anatomical opening, but with the smallest damage possible to these structures. Doctors use cameras to observe and perform the procedure, sometimes using remote control devices that resemble video game controllers.
Bio-engineering 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 bio-engineers are 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.
A core college curriculum in bioengineering will be heavy in math, physics, chemistry and biology. Therefore, any student in high school should consider taking as many preparatory courses as possible in these areas. 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, students can select engineering as a field of study, and then choose a concentration within engineering.
College bioengineering programs often emphasize particular aspects of 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 undergraduate 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.
Is an Advanced Degree Needed to Work in Bioengineering?
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 take entry-level jobs.
Because bioengineering is viewed as a broad discipline comprised of principles from other engineering specialties, preparing students for a bioengineering degree is a challenge for any program. Becoming a good engineer is the first prerequisite toward a career in bioengineering. After that, students should acquire a working knowledge of the life sciences and their terminology.
Some students will have an opportunity to major in bioengineering. Others may choose to major in chemical, electrical, or mechanical engineering with a specialty in biomedical engineering. If a bioengineering specialty is not available at a particular college, students 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.
There is no easy answer to this question, but potential biomedical engineering students can begin their search by first looking into programs in their own state or region. Thanks to the growing numbers of academic programs in bioengineering, more good programs are available today. Be sure to determine the focus of the program because some emphasize research while others have more of an orientation toward industrial careers. Examine the curriculum and ask about the placement of recent graduates.
Bioengineers have their choice of working in hospitals, universities, industry, or research laboratories. The various possible institutions might include medical device manufacturers, pharmaceutical companies, regulatory agencies and medical research institutions. Bioengineering graduates also are prepared to pursue advanced study for careers in medicine, law, business, education, and other fields.
Continual change and the creation of new areas due to rapid advancement in technology are typical for this career. Computer-assisted surgery 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. Some of these specialty areas frequently depend on one another for areas of expertise. The list is not inclusive, but a few of these specialties and what they do include:
Bioinstrumentation applies electronics and measurement techniques to create devices used in diagnosis and treatment of disease. Computers that are part of a single-purpose instrument or systems that process and analyze huge amounts of data are an essential part of this specialty.
Biomaterials involve living tissue and artificial materials that are implanted in individuals. It requires an understanding of living material appropriate implant material must be chosen. Metal alloys, ceramics, polymers, and composites are materials from which a bioengineer must choose to find one that is nontoxic, non-carcinogenic, chemically inert, stable, and mechanically strong enough to withstand a lifetime of the repeated use.
Classical mechanics such as statics, dynamics, fluids, solids, thermodynamics, and continuum mechanics 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 uses the anatomy, biochemistry and mechanics of cellular and sub-cellular structures to attack biomedical problems at the microscopic level. Through this technology, miniature devices can deliver compounds to stimulate or inhibit cellular processes at precise locations and promote healing.
Clinical engineers develop and maintain computer databases of medical instrumentation and equipment records. They often work with physicians to develop instrumentation that applies the latest technology to a specific healthcare system.
Medical imaging generates an image for physicians that can be used in diagnosis or patient treatment. It combines information about a unique physical phenomenon such as sound, radiation, or magnetism with high-speed data processing, analysis and display to create the image. These images provide a view of the medical problem without using surgery.
The function of bones, joints and muscles, and the design of artificial joint replacements is the specialty of orthopedic bioengineering. Methods of engineering and computational mechanics are combined to better understand these functions. Orthopedic engineers will examine the friction, lubrication and wear characteristics of natural and artificial joints, perform stress analysis of the musculoskeletal system, and develop artificial biomaterials for replacement.
Rehabilitation engineering is a growing specialty whose job 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 involves the engineering strategies, techniques, and tools needed to understand the function of all living organisms, from bacteria to humans. Computer models analyze experimental data and formulate mathematical descriptions of physiological events. From this, predictor models can be used to design experiments and increase understanding of the organism.
Bioengineers are not limited to industrial work. Someone with extensive experience in bioengineering, especially in a specific area might decide to become a consultant to other businesses. 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.
Those who prefer to choose their areas of research, and who enjoy helping others learn the skills of bioengineering might choose college teaching. The growing number of university 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.
Trends in Bioengineering Careers
The Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics counted about 7,600 bioengineering and biomedical engineering jobs in a recent survey. The greatest number of bioengineering specialists work in manufacturing industries, such as pharmaceutical manufacturing, medical instrument development, and health care supply. Many others worked for hospitals, government agencies, or as independent contractors or consultants.
These types of jobs are expected to increase by nearly thirty-two percent over the next five years. Through the next decade, experts predict that bioengineering positions will nearly double the average growth rate for all other types of jobs. An aging population with a focus on health 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
A salary survey, conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers in 2003, indicated starting salaries for bachelor's degree candidates in bioengineering averaged $39,126 a year. For master's degree candidates, the average starting offer was $61,000. The median annual salary of biomedical engineers was $60,410. More than half of specialists in this field earn between $58,320 and $88,830. Although the lowest ten percent of bioengineers earned less than $48,450, experienced professionals in the top ten percent of the survey earned more than $107,520.
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