I grew up in Louisiana and went to college at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. I initially pursued pre-med, but quickly realized there is no fallback plan if you only do pre-med, so I changed to biological engineering with a focus in pre-med. I soon recognized that engineering was much better than being a doctor could ever be and continued along the engineering track. When I was about to graduate, I realized that unless I wanted to work for John Deere or Waste Management, there is not a lot to do for biological engineers in Louisiana.
As neither of those were of interest to me, I looked into graduate schools and applied to Georgia Tech and Emory for the joint PhD program. Choosing biomedical engineering in graduate school was sort of a default because it was the closest thing to biological engineering, and despite the fact that I did not want to be a doctor, I still wanted to participate in projects related to the hospital and to patients. I wanted to be the one who created the devices doctors use. I wanted to understand doctors and their needs and then build something for them.
The Tiger Team
While I was at Georgia Tech, the extracurricular that interviewers loved the most was the Tiger team. Tiger team is a program where individuals are placed into about ten different teams of four people in the grouping of one PhD, one MBA and two law students. The team then takes a PhD project and discusses how they can turn it into a company. This two-year program leads students through how to create a business plan, how to get money and teaches them to understand what is required in business. Usually, working with teams is incredibly frustrating. Oftentimes you end up with team members that will not do a specific project or do not commit to their delivery. However, learning how to work in teams was fundamental to my success today. In this line of work, teams never really go away. At the moment, I am organizing a team of five people that are going to be spending three weeks in Belgium with me. With the tiger team, I took a lot of business classes. This was huge because it gave me an understanding of what businesses are actually focusing on, and how businesses look at problems through a different angle than engineers typically do.
Graduate school research
Also, when I was an undergraduate, I did paper-based research where I was researching ways to treat diabetes. I actually used that to help me get a National Science Foundation fellowship for graduate school. Using the research that I was doing, I wrote a proposal for how to do the experiment and submitted it to the NSF. My research ended up earning me a scholarship to go to graduate school.
After entering graduate school, I continued my research for five and a half years. My research was failing, and I decided that I had enough. I left with a Masters degree after I completed all the coursework, but I did not do all of the research required to get a PhD. While in graduate school I was applying for jobs in career services on the Georgia Tech campus and got my position at Edwards. I do not have any regrets about the path my life took. I think it was a convoluted path, but if I had to do it all over again, I would still pursue the PhD and leave with a Masters.
My Job at Edwards Lifesciences
I think one aspect of my education that appealed to them was my research. I had five and a half years of PhD research and there was a lot that I could pull out of it that related to business.
I was drawn to Edwards while interviewing for another company. I was actually in the department at Georgia Tech for interviews, and I was interviewing for a job with Medtronic. While I was preparing for the interview, I noticed someone from Edwards sitting at the main social table area for career services. He was talking to people about Edwards to prepare students before they went into their interview to calm their nerves and to answer some of their questions. I kept hearing this guy talk about Edwards and this rotation program that they offered and it peaked my interest. However, I was there to interview with Medtronic, so I made a mental note that when I finished my interview with Medtronic, I was going to talk to this guy from Edwards. I did not really know what the company did, I just knew they had a rotational program for new engineers coming out of school. I talked to the guy for a while and asked if it was possible for me to interview with them. He said there were no spaces available, but I still tried to convince him.
I left him with my resume and business card and said, “Well, if you get any openings, please call me. I can come right back.” Thirty minutes later, he called me back saying they had an opening for an interview. I admitted I did not know much about Edwards, but I explained my background in biomedical engineering and why I thought I would be a good candidate for this rotational program. I talked my way into the interview, and then I talked my way into a flight to Laguna Beach, California to interview in Irvine, and now here I am.
When I think of the reason they accepted me, I think one aspect of my education that appealed to them was my research. I had five and a half years of PhD research and there was a lot that I could pull out of it that related to business. I explained how I had to do supplies management by ordering supplies, and that is something that appeals to a company. Also, part of my research included writing a procedure, which a company can relate to writing standard operating procedures.
Expectations vs. Reality
When I first started at Edwards I did their rotation program, which takes 5-7 new engineers each year. You rotate for over 18 months through four different departments in the company. I started in manufacturing, then I went to research and development. After R&D, I went to marketing, where I wrote a business plan for one of our devices. Lastly, I went to the clinical studies department. The rotation program gave me an incredible amount of exposure: different functions in the company, different people, and how different things are done. I was also able to work with people who were willing to train me and put in the extra time to make sure that I was ready to do the work.
One of the things that surprised me about Edwards is that they really appreciate what new engineers have to offer. They understand that we come with fresh ideas and a different look on how to do things, and that we have an incredible amount of energy just because we are so excited not to have a paper due or to have to study for an exam. We just want to jump right in and learn everything that we can. I was amazed at how much Edwards understands and appreciates this aspect. I sort of expected to come in to find these old grouchy engineers that were like “Oh, you youngin’s do not know anything. You know, I’ve been doing this for sixty years and this is the way we do it. We do not need your new ideas and your newfangled cell phones.” Instead, I found everyone to be really open, and I was able to work well with people of various ages and backgrounds and experiences.
A Typical Day
At Edwards, I start every day by checking my email or my phone before I went into work. I do a lot of work in Europe, and by the time I wake up, they have already been working all night. This means that I probably have twenty or thirty emails that I read while I am still lying in bed. Then I either have an early morning conference call at 7:30am or a meeting at 8am. I would say I spend a lot of my day in meetings where I work with multidisciplinary teams. This morning I had a meeting with our operations team, where they went through all the steps they need to complete before they can provide the product to me for me to do a clinical study. The meeting included high-level directors, and vice presidents, and everyone talked about multiple functions and tasks that needed to be completed in time for us to receive our products, so that we can start our study. I usually have some meetings that I am in where I am there just in case they need me; in case they have a question that is specific to my area of expertise. I then have some meetings that I am in because they are informative and introduce me to whom to contact if I need help with a certain issue. There are also other meetings that I hold where I have all the right participants in the room, make sure we have action items, and then everyone leaves and does their job. They can then provide me with information that is vital for me to complete the job that I am working on at that time. Depending on the day, I could be in meetings from eight in the morning until five at night. After my meetings is when I actually sit at my computer and do the work I need to do. Thus, I am at the office until six-thirty at night, or sometimes even eight o’clock.
The other part of my work requires me to stay in Europe fifty percent of the time. Recently, I was in Belgium working with nurses and doctors at our clinical studies site. I will be there again in a couple of weeks to make sure they understand what they need to do for the study, that they are properly trained on protocol, and that all of their little small questions are answered. I find that people are more comfortable speaking with me in person, so it is easiest if I just go to them. We are currently working on a publication and so they needed to review the manuscript that I had drafted. After hearing their feedback, we brainstormed on what else we could add, different directions it could take, and when we want to publish it.
What Comes with the Job: Stress, Responsibility, and Dedication
In Edwards, the most stressful thing is the short timelines. I have a lot of responsibilities, even though I have only been with the company for five years. I have a budget of over a million dollars and am running at least two clinical trials, with another one scheduled to start at the end of the year. Companies have strict timelines because we eventually need to make a profit and get these products out the door. As a manager of a project, it can be really stressful to make sure that everyone is doing what they need to so that we can finish the study and get all the data out of it in a timely manner. Being a project manager requires you to work a lot with different people, and thankfully I have an excellent team. With my team, I do not have to be concerned will anyone intentionally not doing something. Everyone on my team is very motivated. Everyone is really focused on doing the right thing, so I also do not have to worry about an ethical concern. However, people do get busy, and things get forgotten, and so I am constantly going back with people to make sure everything is being done. At the end of the day it is my job to ensure that everything gets done, and that can create a lot of stress. I am the one that has to look the vice president in the eye and say, “yes we did this and this was the result” or “no, we could not start on time and it was my fault.” Needless to say that can be pretty stressful.
The job in Edwards requires quite a lot of dedication, but I absolutely love what I do. I get to spend a lot of time with experts in the field at conferences. I was recently at a conference in Portugal where experts from around the world came to speak. Presently, I’m working with a key opinion leader to develop a presentation for him to present on data that we collaborated to get. Part of my job requires doing a lot of upfront work to develop the right presentations for presenters, so that they can summarize the data we have spent months trying to collect. There are some beautiful graphs that we are showing that make a huge statement. People are usually awed by the data because our system works so well. That is probably one of the biggest highlights of my job. It is what I enjoy doing the best.
I also love my coworkers. I work with an incredible team of people worldwide, who are highly motivated, incredibly ethical, fun to work with, and serious when they need to be. I travel with some of these people for weeks at a time, so I get to know some of the people I work with really well. Edwards focuses on growth and development, and they want to provide us with opportunities to grow. They understand where we are in our process of climbing the corporate ladder and understand what they can do to bring us to the next step.
We really have to find a balance of whether it is more important to get a product out the door, or if it is more important to take a little bit longer to research it, understand it, and to develop a slightly better product
If I absolutely had to change something about my job right now, I think it would be more along the lines of financial drivers that sometimes push our timelines. I know it is an essential aspect of being in a company, because in the end we have to make a profit, but we really have to find a balance of whether it is more important to get a product out the door, or if it is more important to take a little bit longer to research it, understand it, and to develop a slightly better product. This is always tough for everyone because as a developer, you want to go out with the perfect product, but from the company’s standpoint, there comes the question of how is it possible to really know that you have the perfect product until someone’s is actually using it and giving you feedback on it. I feel like Edwards does a really good job of finding the right balance. We have mini-reviews of products where we use independent reviewers, who have no financial interest in it, to come in and look at the product. This eliminates part of the problem. I just think sometimes it would be awesome if the money never ended, and we would never be rushed into finishing products that may not be completely ready.
I am a Clinical Project Manager
At Edwards, I manage projects for clinical affairs. What that means is that I do the clinical trials for a product. My product is a glucose monitor; it continuously measures glucose count for patients that are in the intensive care unit (ICU). Ours just recently received a CE mark for sale in Europe. The product is similar to the devices that people use at home, but it is more accurate and can be used in the hospital for critically ill patients.
My job involves coming up with the study that we want to do, writing the protocol, finding the doctors to do the study, ordering all the supplies that are required to do the study, and then working with operations to make sure that they are ready to provide us with our product for the study.
We were planning on doing the exact same study last September and were two weeks away from when we were going to start, but our product was not ready. I then had to call all the doctors and cancel. Now that we are ready to start the study, I can go to the hospitals and train the doctors on how to use the devices. I ensure that they are following the correct protocol, because if they are not, the outcome of the study may be affected. We need to watch the doctors closely to make sure that the data they are entering is correct, and to make sure that they understand how to use the device. Finally, when everything is done, we pack up all of our supplies. We write reports based on all the data that we gathered, literally everything that happened, and the resulting reports are huge. The one that I wrote was like 3 inches think; it is huge. Then we work with doctors to publish the data so that it is available to all of the scientific community. This way, others will understand how well our device works, which is something that sales and marketing can use to promote the device. We pay the doctors to participate in the study, but it is not all about the money. Considering how busy doctors already are, when they work with us they go above and beyond their normal duties; after all, they are already working sixty or seventy hours a week. The benefit to the doctors is that they are able to publish and present the data. I have a lot of meetings with people of other functions, from quality to regulatory to the operations to R&D to branding. This way I can make sure that everyone is ready for us to start the studies.
The Value of Experience
After these several years working in Edwards, I am now a completely different person. I would say I have significantly matured. Moving from Atlanta to southern California offered the experience to learn a new area, and it exposed me to people in many different levels of the company. I now have appreciation for what it takes us to get patients safely in and out of the hospital. I am comfortable when I walk into a hospital; I am aware of where I should be standing if I am in the operating room or in the ICU; I understand what the nurses and doctors are doing; I know how to stand out of the way at the right time. You gain a huge social awareness when you are in a highly professional environment that you cannot gain in school. In the professional world you learn to walk into a room and gauge the atmosphere. If the room contains all of the presidents, it is going to be a high-level strategy meeting, but if the room is full of technicians, it is going to be a work meeting where figures are compared.
In my professional life I have learned a greater appreciation for life and career, how much time and effort it takes to keep everything going, and how to balance work and home life and personal life. Achieving balance is always difficult, but I like to bet that at the end of the year, I have a reasonably good balance. Even if I have had to be away from my husband for a month and half due to travel, I like to think I can make up for it by planning something else in my personal life—like a two-week vacation to Asia. One of the things that surprised me about being in the working world is that when you are out of school, you no longer think about life in terms of semesters; years just fly by at an incredible pace. This also could be because I live in southern California, and we do not actually have seasons; it is always beautiful weather here. Sometimes I cannot even remember when something happened, because it all just blends together. I was in graduate school for five and a half years, but that felt like 10 million years. However, the five years that I have been here has gone by at an incredibly fast pace. I really can say that I absolutely love it here.
After several years of working for Edwards, I don’t think I’m very far removed from what I was trying to achieve. However, when I began my journey, I did not even know this type of position existed. I didn’t even know working in clinical studies was a possibility; it’s not something that I ever could have defined in my head. I knew that I wanted to be involved with engineering, but I also wanted to interact with doctors, however I did not know how this could be accomplished. In my experience, my dream became clearer as I gained more experience and more understanding of what was available.
What will I be doing in five years?
On the other hand, I would say I do not know what I want to do five years from now. In college we hear of quality, regulatory, research and development, but we do not really know what any of that means. It was once I actually got involved with the company when I could see what the options were. That is when I started to recognize what I wanted to do, but it really was not until I was actually doing my job that I realized I enjoyed it. My job has changed significantly from when I started the position. As I gain more and more ownership in my job, I love it even more. I am currently in a position where I am running the show and hiring people to help me do what I need to do, but I still cannot tell you that I will be doing this five years from now. I think to some point I will be seeing where my job goes from here. Maybe it will bring me to a role centered on training where I am working with clinicians in hospitals. Or maybe I will be in more of a marketing role, where I am developing objectives that we can use for sales and for presentations. Or maybe I will still be working with clinics and traveling back and forth to Europe, or hopefully to Asia at that point. There are many possibilities!
My advice for students
I now do a lot of interviewing at Georgia Tech, as my company has identified Georgia Tech as a school that has high potential candidates for early engineering positions. Obviously, they already understand that the education is there, and the core classes are there, so it is the other things that people do outside of school that really make them stand out at interviews.
In college I did not take any public speaking classes, but I think that would have helped me. If I could go back, I probably would have started speaking earlier. Also, technical writing is huge; that’s something I saw that was really missing at Georgia Tech, especially in the BME group.
When I think of my college life, the courses I took as an undergraduate are the ones that really helped me to get into graduate school. I would say my biochemistry classes were important courses to take. Also, I found core engineering classes and working in teams to learn problem solving to be very important. I think those relate to different levels of life because everything comes down to problem solving, and the body is just one big engineering system. In school, I wish I had taken a few more medical type classes just to have a better understanding of disease progression and a better understanding of the body. However, I really think BME was the best place for me and working on this degree really set me up to be able to do the job I do today.
To be successful in the industry side of BME, I would recommend some core classes in finance that people go through as business majors. These courses are not included in the basic curriculum for engineers, however if you want to go into industry, it is essential to have some simple accounting and finance knowledge and to understand business plans. These classes will allow you to look at an adoption curve and see who would be the first customers for your product, the easy adopters, and then the ones who may never purchase your products.
When I was in college, I did not partake in any co-ops or internships, but I wish I would have. While I was at Tech, they just did not seem to be available. Instead, my senior year I worked for a pharmacy as a pharmacy tech, and I think there were some good experiences there. Through learning the different medications and then studying for an exam about medications to become a certified pharmacy tech, I discovered more about the world of diabetes, which is what I work in now. It was this experience that introduced me to glucose monitors, and allowed me to start to understand how prevalent diabetes was, how wonderful the poor patients were that have diabetes, and that our most common customers suffered from diabetes and had to regularly come in for medication and insulin. My job as a pharmacy tech gave me interactions with the public and helped me to understand what types of medications are out there, and also what they are used for.
When I recall my life back in college, I really wish I took a foreign language course. That would help me a million times over. I would not take something like Italian, but rather take classes in a language that is more universal like German, Chinese or Mandarin, French, or Spanish. The simple ability of being able to speak and have a conversation in another language can be huge.
What Happens after College?
I think now there is an understanding and an appreciation for what biomedical engineers can do
When I was graduating in biological engineering, people really did not know what to do with us. It was like, so you are not an electrical engineer or a mechanical engineer, but you know about something. Biomedical engineering is more generalized than those who are experts in a specific area. However, I think now there is an understanding and an appreciation for what biomedical engineers can do, even though it is more of a generalist path. I have worked in a bunch of different areas in the company. I like that I can speak on the same level as someone from operations and then someone from research and development when they are being really technical in engineering, but then I can also speak to a clinician about what is happening with their patient in the hospital. Biomedical engineering really helps you learn to communicate in a versatile way. There are definitely jobs and positions at my company where they need an electrical engineer because they need an expert. But there are other jobs that are made for people that can work with multiple people from multiple areas in the company, and biomedical engineering are great at that.
Even though there are not many jobs that are specifically looking for a biomedical engineer, there are still a lot of fields that biomedical engineers can fit into
Even though there are not many jobs that are specifically looking for a biomedical engineer, there are still a lot of fields that biomedical engineers can fit into. At my company, we generally say we are looking for a certain type of engineer, and oftentimes a biomedical engineer could fit the category. However, there are not many companies that are necessarily saying “I need a biomedical engineer for this position.” Again, it is all about the general versus the specific. If we are designing a monitor that has a ton of electronics and circuit boards and it requires an electrical connection from inside the patient’s vein to the monitor that can display information on a board, then we need a hardcore electrical engineer. If we are looking for people to work in a lab on a new sensor that is measuring different levels of different chemicals, then we will be looking for a chemical engineer. However, generally when we post a job, the requirements are not that specific, and so oftentimes if a person can explain that their skillset will allow them to achieve the job, then we will hire them. That is what is nice about big companies. There are so many different types of jobs that vary from general to incredibly specific, so there is a lot of places biomedical engineers can fit perfectly.
I learned from my job that the most important thing is networking. That is the number one reason why a people get jobs—because they know someone who knows someone who knows someone in the company. The most important thing you can do in your college life is to figure out ways to network. Networking is not cheesy business talk like, “Hi, stranger on the plane, let me tell you who I am and why you’re going to love me and help me one day.” It is not that formal. Networking is simply meeting people and developing friendships and relationships with people at multiple levels. These people are not just students, but also alumni. Networking is the best way to ensure that your resume is pulled to the top. The best thing you can do is to have someone saying, “pay attention to this one.” It is never too early to start networking. If you start as a freshman or sophomore, then you can be awkward and it does not matter. This way you will get to pass the awkward stage and by the time you are a junior or senior and you are looking for internships, you already know how the whole networking thing works and you know how to respond various situations.
Also, pay attention to your older peers that are graduating now. They will soon be going out to all sorts of different companies, and so by the time you graduate, they will have had three years in a company that most likely values their opinions. It is the same if you are doing lab research. The older students that you are working with will soon be getting full time jobs. It is just another way to network. If you do research, and you want to go into the industry, then one of the things you can consider is that your advisor most likely has industry connections. Your advisor just might be able to get you connected with someone from a company you are interested in working with.
An internship can also help you with networking. I definitely recommend any internships or co-ops that you can get; it does not even have to be with a medical device company. Any experience helps. I think toward the end, when you getting close to your senior year, having an internship in more then just the field that you are interested in will help. In an internship, the other employees know that you are new and green, but that you do not see it. These people will be willing to help you see it and help you work through it.
In an internship it is important to have a mentor. Whether it is someone in the company, or someone who has worked there before, finding a mentor is pretty important. A mentor is someone who is not your boss, and so you feel comfortable asking him or her questions. A mentor can also help you with some scenarios that may or may not make sense to you.
When you start to look for jobs at the career fair, research the companies that you are interested in. This gives you bonus points in the eyes of the interviewers. If I were in human resources (HR), I would be interested in people who walked up and said “I know Edwards, I love this heart valve that you have,” or possibly, “I have been looking at your company for the past couple of years and it is my dream to work with your company,” and then started to list off why they would be a good fit for the company. In the career fair, you do not always have two minutes; sometimes you only have five seconds to grab the attention of the HR people. There are so many people that are walking up and have nothing to say, and so if you can walk up and say, “I know your company, I know you made this product,” it makes a big difference. All it takes is a little bit of research and an extra level of interest.
An elevator pitch is also important. Be prepared when you walk in. You need to be able to give some criteria about yourself, explaining why you would be a good fit for the job. Whether it is “I work in Dr.X’s lab, where we are doing research on heart valves, and I am really interested in the replacement of valves,” or it is aspects about yourself like you are really motivated, or why you want to work for specific companies, you just need to be prepared.
A program that I would recommend for students to improve their interview skills is Toast Masters. This is a worldwide program, which focuses on public speaking and leadership. It is an outstanding program that forces you to practice public speaking. This is helpful because a large part of an interview is just you being able to explain what you have done in a concise and interesting way, without getting too nervous to focus on the questions you are being asked.
Surviving in the Real World: The Job Market
When we look for new employees at Edwards, we do not focus on any particular courses or programs that we want students to have taken. We really target good engineering schools, like Duke, Georgia Tech, and Purdue, so we know that these students have done the coursework, and have good grades. The process is not super specific.
I think what really stands out during the interview process is having internships.
Many students are inexperienced and only think of things relative to working in a lab, and there is a completely different focus when it comes to working in a company. In labs you could spend years researching a tiny protein that no one may ever care about, but you have funding to do it. In a company, you have to assess up front if anyone should even research that protein.
When looking for a job, your grade point average (GPA) definitely matters because there are so many people that apply for positions. Generally, filtering by GPA is an easy way to chop out a huge number of job applications. Regardless of what school you went to, and what classes you took, your GPA will be the first thing anyone looks at and if you are not above, say a 3.5, you will not even get in the door. For the 5 to 7 positions we have here at Edwards, there are over a thousand people that applied. Since it becomes impossible to carefully evaluate so many people, we have to use some basic measures, such as GPA, to just cut out the majority of applicants.
This is my advice toward all of you and I hope you can figure out a road that best fits your path to becoming a biomedical engineer.