My name is Shelley Eckert and I graduated from Georgia Tech in May of 2010. The first three years after graduation, I worked at Sierra Bard in Covington, Georgia in Bard Medical Division. I worked in the R&D department on the new product development side doing work primarily with their urological products. Currently, I am working at a company called Halkey Roberts based in Tampa Bay, Florida. They are a small, primarily medical device component supplier that does I.V. componentry–all sorts of valves and different connectors that go in an I.V. line.
How I ended up in the Georgia Tech BME Program
I first became interested in BME because I thought I wanted to be a doctor when I was growing up, and then I worked with some vascular surgeons through a program at my high school and saw the whole spectrum of the healthcare field. I realized that being a surgeon would require a lot of school and a lot of effort, and at the end of the day, you had to work on one patient at a time. Being in that environment was great, and I really enjoyed it, but I wanted a different impact than what the doctors had. And so another job that I saw in that field was the device side. I saw devices being incredibly impactful in many, many patients, and I saw a lot of need to improve on them. Once I got into the curriculum at Georgia Tech, it just felt like a really great fit for me. As hard as the classes were, I enjoyed the fact that almost all my BME classes had some aspect of healthcare.
I worked at a vascular surgeon’s office for two summers, with the second summer working on the IT side of things. It wasn’t really true biomedical engineering, but part of my job involved interfacing with the physicians and teaching them some of the new medical device software that they had. I’m very grateful for that experience; it set me up for success now because I do interface with all different types of clinical staff.
The summer before my senior year, I did a professional internship with Procter & Gamble up in Cincinnati. I worked on Downy Fabric Softener and their packaging line. Not where I saw myself working, but in 2009, the job market was not great, and so I was just happy to have an internship at all. That experience gave me was an opportunity to see what product development looked like. Granted, it wasn’t medical device products, but it was products. So when I began interviewing for a full-time job, I was able to talk about my product development experience at P&G coupled with the clinical experiences that I had had summers prior. Overall, it put together a package that was biomedical engineering experience even though it wasn’t one experience that had every facet to it.
Finding my first job
The first thing I did after graduation was meet with Sally Gerrish. She is absolutely a phenomenal resource for biomedical engineers looking for jobs, and I still have a relationship with her. She told me that it takes between eight to twelve months to find a job in BME right now. It’s not that jobs are unfindable, but you just have to work hard, and you have to look at every opportunity when you’re job searching.
I did everything and the advice that I tell seniors now is congratulations, school isn’t your first priority anymore. Your GPA isn’t going to change very much your senior year, so instead of your top priority being studying for a test, in my mind, your top priority becomes going to info sessions, and going to career fairs, and going to lunch-and-learns. Just say yes to everything, because you never know what is going to get you that lucky break. My lucky break was a lunch-and-learn that Sally emailed out about. I ended up having a really great conversation with one of the guys that had come to present, and the next thing I knew, a couple weeks later, they emailed me and asked if I would be interested in interviewing. The rest was history. It was an incredible experience, and it led me into probably the best first job that I could have had in medical devices.
The importance of soft skills
When companies are recruiting for new college grads, they’re not looking for someone who’s a technical expert in what they manufacture; they’re looking for someone who has the ability to learn. As someone who has done a lot of college recruiting after I graduated, I can say that with a lot of confidence. That’s really the primary target for us people in industry. The ideal new recruit is the student who is really curious and really seems like they would work well on a team, the student who seems like they would learn new things and enjoy doing that as a self-starter. The reason we recruit at Tech is because we think everyone at Tech is smart enough to work for us. It’s the other, more soft skills that we interview students for, to see who has it and who doesn’t.
For BME, the ability to quickly learn on your own is a very important skill. You want to be able to navigate through journal articles, and reviews, and literature to understand a disease state really quickly and then to be able to have an educated conversation with someone about it who knows way more than you.
For BME, the ability to quickly learn on your own is a very important skill. You want to be able to navigate through journal articles, and reviews, and literature to understand a disease state really quickly and then to be able to have an educated conversation with someone about it who knows way more than you. I think a really important skill is the ability to communicate. You can be the smartest person in the world, but if you can’t communicate what you are thinking to someone who is not very technical, then you lose your power and your influence, especially in a team. I work in a cross-functional team where I’m working with marketing people, with finance people- people who really don’t care about latex polymer chains. But if I can tell them what the impact of my latex polymer chain behavior is on the final product in simple words, then we can have a conversation about what we should do next with whatever problem I’m dealing with. The ability to communicate that technical knowledge well is absolutely critical.
The product development process
One of the reasons that I love my job is because there is no average day. When I was working on finished devices, a typical project took two years, from start to finish. So in that two year cycle, you will start at the beginning, which is sitting in a room, brainstorming, drawing on whiteboards, figuring out what the problem is that you’re trying to solve, or what the user need is, maybe going out to hospitals and talking to nurses or doctors, or observing patients and understanding what the need is for your device. In that phase of a project, a typical day is a lot of abstract thinking and a lot of researching and a lot of reading.
As you begin to settle in on what your device is actually going to look like, the typical day becomes a little more technical. You’ll probably be working in SolidWorks, or some sort of 3D CAD package, actually developing and working through your device. Maybe you will be building prototypes, printing them with 3D printers and then taking those prints back out to the field and showing them to nurses.
After this initial prototyping phase, you transition into an even more technical role where you say, “Okay, we’ve got a prototype that works, now how do I make ten million of them a year?” At that point I would work a lot more on manufacturing, which is one of my favorite areas.
It’s a satisfying feeling knowing your device is everywhere, and patients everywhere are being touched by something that you worked on. It’s a huge team that does it, but the value of being a part of that is a really cool feeling.
Another part of the project, which is probably my favorite is when you actually have the device produced and you’re going to the hospitals with it. Typically with medical devices, there’s a training on education piece, and a lot of companies will let engineers be a part of that because you do know the device really well. It’s a really cool feeling to be in those rooms with the whiteboard and then be in the manufacturing facility teaching operators how to build the device and then see it in a hospital all in a matter of months or years. It’s a satisfying feeling knowing your device is everywhere, and patients everywhere are being touched by something that you worked on. It’s a huge team that does it, but the value of being a part of that is a really cool feeling.
Final words of wisdom
There are many words of wisdom I wish I had heard while I came through Tech, but I wish that there had been more people saying that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and what you’re doing is worth it.
There are many words of wisdom I wish I had heard while I came through Tech, but I wish that there had been more people saying that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and what you’re doing is worth it. It’s so easy to get beaten down, especially when there are projects from every direction and homework assignments, you haven’t slept in 3 weeks, and you probably haven’t showered too. It’s hard, and anyone who tells you it’s not hard is lying. I haven’t worked as hard as I worked when I was at Tech but, it’s so worth it. When I walk into work and introduce myself as an engineer from Georgia Tech, it commands a different level of respect than other engineering schools do, and it’s really cool to feel that way.
So, my advice to you is that it is worth it and there will be people who tell you biomedical engineers can’t get jobs. When they tell you that, plug your ears and laugh at them because you can. Sure, jobs don’t come offered up to you on a silver platter, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t find exactly what you want to do.