Updated: Aug 2
Take a look at our conversation with Dhruv Patel, a Bioengineering graduate!
Dhruv Patel graduated from University of Maryland in 2020 with a BS in Bioengineering. He is also the Co-founder and CEO of Synapto, an early stage healthcare technology company revolutionizing Alzheimer's diagnosis through portable EEG and Machine Learning. In this article, Dhruv provides guidance to students interested in pursuing a career in the biomedical engineering field.
Message from Dhruv: Hi everyone! My name is Dhruv, and not too long ago (feels like yesterday) I was in your shoes; Excited about the world of science & technology, unsure of where to start, what to do, or how to get there. I hope this article can help guide you in the right direction, but remember...these are not hard and fast rules, and there is never a one-way street to achieving your dreams. If you fail, try again, and carve your own unique path to accomplishing your goals!
For Middle Schoolers
How to help middle schoolers start thinking and dreaming about their future in the biomedical engineering field?
Middle school is a great time to start thinking about STEM. With the ongoing crisis, the future of healthcare and public health will rely on the next generation of innovators and scientists. Check out some books at your local library, participate in the Science Olympiad competitions in your school, and try to question the world around you, big or small! The universe around us is full of amazing natural phenomenon for you to pick apart and study. If you notice your mom pouring coffee into the plants in her garden, ask yourself, how does this help increase plant growth? Does it work for all plants? Or if you're playing a game on your smartphone, start to wonder about how mobile applications work, and how even you could learn to code online! Be curious & ask questions, and if you find yourself digging deep in your independent project, maybe even consider a submission to Science Montgomery!
What skills sets do they need to develop?
While there aren't any hard and fast skill sets that are integral to develop in middle school for a career in STEM, I would say develop good study habits that will carry over with you to high school, and hopefully college and beyond. Start to think critically about the world around you whether it be in science or not, and be a strong problem solver. You can start by reading books in subjects you like, and sometimes even in areas you wouldn't necessarily gravitate towards (for example, if you're usually a science person, maybe try one of the Classics to make yourself well-rounded).
What types of things they must like to cultivate their interest in a biomedical field?
The biomedical engineering field is extremely interdisciplinary. Typically bioengineers of all level in education have studied a range of topics from chemistry, physics, math, engineering, & biology. Medical devices and therapeutics are complicated, and it's the combination and understanding of these fields that yields innovative technologies and solutions to better patients' lives. Developing an interest in any of these subjects will help you apply that specific field to human health and bettering the human condition.
What subjects they should be interested in studying to pursue their interests in a good biomedical engineering undergrad program?
Typically, undergraduate programs will not see coursework from middle school, and there may not be much leniency in coursework options for your middle school, but if there is, and for high school, take more courses you find yourself interested in, enjoy, and excel in. It's not news that taking higher level, rigorous coursework in high school, and maintaining a good GPA along with that, will prove to be helpful in application to any undergraduate program. However, if you'd like to cultivate a more engineering focused curriculum, think about taking classes like AP Computer Science, AP Physics C, AP Calculus, AP Chemistry, and Multivariable Calculus (if applicable, and offered). Again, these aren't hard and fast rules (well-roundness is key, and it doesn't mean you won't be accepted without these courses), but the critical thinking typically required of these courses may better prepare you for engineering programs which can be rigorous.
Starting from their middle school, what extra-curricular activities they should pick up to support their goals of getting into a good biomedical undergraduate program in college?
Typically, undergraduate programs won't see activities done in middle school (unless they were continued to high school), so just try to do whatever interests you! If you're really interested in STEM, you will naturally gravitate towards the activities related to STEM. Try to get involved in long-term service opportunities as well where you can develop relationships with the people you serve as well as the community and supervisors. Like I mentioned before, Science Olympiad, Science Montgomery, Robotics, Math Club, and other clubs your school may have can be good starting points. Trying non-Science opportunities may also help you be a well-rounded individual, and might help you stand out among other STEM applicants as well! If you have difficulty in finding these extracurricular activities, talk to your counselor or school advisor and they may have a packet to better help you! If these clubs aren't available at your school, potentially consider starting them with the support of a teacher or other advisor.
For High Schoolers
What courses they should take in high school? What can I do to prepare academically?
A rigorous coursework while maintaining a good GPA will help you prepare for any college program, however courses in STEM specifically may better prepare you for engineering programs specifically. Specifically, AP Physics C, AP Calc, AP Computer Science, AP Chemistry, and others are known to be rigorous and may help prepare you academically for engineering. This doesn't mean to only focus on these courses, however these can be very challenging and help prepare academically.
How to get healthcare-related volunteer opportunities as a high school student?
These can go very quickly, so you may have to be vigilant! Look for volunteering opportunities at your local hospital(s) (you may have to start looking early in the year), and see if you can develop relationships with the supervisors, nurses, and physicians you serve. You may also ask to shadow your physician, or doctors you may have in your network. This process can seem tedious, and 99% of them will often say no, but all it takes is 1 yes!
How can they make themselves a “well qualified” candidate for good undergraduate premed or biomedical programs?
Typically, it is the engineering school that will accept an applicant, once the applicant is accepted to the University. For example, it is possible at the University of Maryland to be accepted to the school, but not the engineering major (since it is considered a Limited Enrollment Program). If this does happen, it is very possible to transfer to engineering once certain prerequisites are met for the first 1-2 years of undergraduate school. This may not be the case for all universities.
Engineering at the University of Maryland typically looks for higher standardized test score and GPA averages than the overall school average (can be found on their website), however other factors like background, experience may also play a role. If you're really interested in a particular engineering program, for example let's say UMD's Clark School, you may even look into doing an internship there over the summer to try and develop relationships with the PI's and professors there. If you're particularly interested in a top engineering or undergraduate program, a rigorous coursework along with a great GPA will help, however you want to show your creative or unique side, so like I mentioned earlier about having a curious mindset: ask questions about science, and follow through with them! So start your own project, go out of your way to help the community in novel ways others aren't. These can take the form of a particular research opportunity that you took to the next level, a powerful community service project that impacted lives, or something completely independent you did to create meaningful change. If you need help, reach out to the relevant stakeholders and advisors, they are almost always willing to help students! Again, be naturally curious about the world around you, and you will develop a scientific mindset that will aid in starting your novel project creating meaningful change.
What extracurricular opportunities should I look for? How do I find out about these experiences?
Same logic applies here, look for clubs you're interested in, if you're naturally interested in STEM, you will gravitate towards these clubs and thus will automatically further aid in your application to college. There's no single answer for what extracurricular activities to look for, other than look for clubs you're interested in, and be well rounded, so in addition to your Robotics or Science Olympiad club, maybe give Debate or Mock Trial a try. After all, public speaking & presentation skills are just as important as your technical skills. If you have trouble finding out about these clubs at your high school, reach out to your counselor. If they aren't available at your high school, maybe look into getting the support of a teacher and founding that club yourself. If you see a problem or opportunity in your school or community, rather than a roadblock, see it as a challenge to overcome!
What summer programs should high school students look for? How do I approach research and acquiring positions?
High school students interested in STEM typically seek out research positions during their summers.
Montgomery County is a great area to be in for research as we are the home to multiple federal and private STEM research institutes. Research positions can also be hard to come by though! I applied to NIH summer internship program multiple times with no luck. To be successful there, you sometimes may need an internal referral contact, or have a PI that really appreciates your background and career goals on your resume. This can be achieved by finding PI emails on the NIH website and emailing those labs you are interested in. Research facilities will typically take interns after their junior year of high school, however some may take those who completed sophomore year and are 16 years or older.
For those under 16, interested in these positions, some labs may look for volunteers for science/non-science work, and this may be a good starting point opportunity as well. For those looking for summer research internships, unless otherwise stated, always try to reach out to specific PIs or managers in the program. So for example, if applying to the IBBR program, I would reach out to a specific lab or two I am particularly interested in, under IBBR. This process may seem lengthy or tedious, however it is a good way for your application to stand out among sometimes hundreds or thousands. To start making and finding these connections, it may be helpful to make a LinkedIn.
Trying to find these positions in high school, especially with little or no prior experience, can seem daunting and difficult. While I'm not sure what the short/long-term effect COVID-19 will have on summer internships, look in different job posting places (LinkedIn, Indeed, etc...), be willing to accept a volunteer position, and be resilient. Once you have found one internship, you may use the relationships you built there to further your network and potentially help you obtain another internship as well! More often than not, you can get overlooked by more qualified applicants including those that are in college, however developing hard skills from the clubs you participate in and showing this on your resume may help give you an edge.
What should I consider when applying to undergraduate pre-med or biomedical engineering programs?
Biomedical engineering and pre-medical programs are rigorous programs, especially when done together. If considering doing both, think about why you'd like an education in engineering first and how that would complement your career or education as a physician. If interested in a MD/PhD or career in medical device innovation, the combination may be a good fit for you.
If simply interested in BME, consider your goals with a degree in BME. If it is to innovate medical devices and therapies, the degree is a popular choice by many with the same goal, however you will likely require some graduate education to lead efforts in the field.