Interest in BME major grows nationwide

| Staff Reporter

Biomedical engineering is America’s fastest growing field in the past decade, expanding by 215 percent at the bachelor’s level across the country.

Washington University is no outlier in this trend. Though biomedical engineering (BME) was introduced at the University just 14 years ago, it is now the largest undergraduate department in the engineering school.

BME is the application of engineering principles and techniques to the medical field. It combines the design and problem solving skills of engineering with medical and biological sciences to improve health care diagnosis and treatment.

“It is very challenging to understand what engineers do,” said Dennis Barbour, assistant professor of BME. “They solve society’s big problems, but [their contributions] are often hidden and easy to take for granted. BME is drawing people in probably because they can see the application of BME a lot easier. BME is hitting closer to home and relating to a closer arena of medicine and biology of the human body.”

The growth in BME as a field has exceeded all expectations. In addition to more than double the number of students earning bachelor’s degrees in the field over the past decade, similar growths were recorded at the master’s and doctoral levels, with growth at 193 percent and 256 percent respectively.

“BME is a small and rapidly growing field,” Barbour said. “There are more opportunities to major in it as there are more than 70 departments in BME [in the U.S.]. The BME undergraduate degree requires students to master both the physical and the biological sciences, which make it quite a versatile degree.”

There were 1,156 BME bachelor’s degrees awarded in 2000. By 2009, that number jumped to 3,644. The increase was equally astonishing for master’s and doctoral degrees awarded. In 2000, 476 and 203 master’s degrees and doctoral degrees were awarded in BME respectively. Nine years later, the number of master’s degrees awarded surged to 1,396 and likewise, and the number of doctoral degrees spiked to 722 nationwide.

Washington University is ranked 11th in the number of BME degrees awarded in 2009 with 72. Duke University, topped the list with 141. University of California San Diego and Georgia Institute of Technology were a close second and third with 136 and 134 respectively.

“I became interested in BME because I took some BME-like classes in high school,” junior William Stock said. “Classes here are very interesting and very difficult. The subject matter is extremely interesting, and that’s where the entire medical field is going toward. BME will have the most demand job-wise, and in the next decade, it is for sure going to grow, and there will be huge demand for it.”

Indeed, preparation for a job is one of the main draws of the BME major.

“A large fraction of BME students go on to medical school,” Barbour said. “Engineering school has roughly the same percentage of students going to medical school as the school of ArtSci. Other students go on to additional professional training such as graduate schools or even law school. Some choose to go into immediate practice such as working at biomedical device manufacturers or big pharmaceutical companies such as Johnson & Johnson.”

Students appreciate the options that the BME degree offers.

“I would like to work in the field for a couple of years and go to graduate school or medical school,” Stock said. “I am thinking about industry job such as drug research or something in biomolecular. I feel more prepared for medical school [as a BME major]. [As long as one can] power through four years and maybe through grad school, it will be very rewarding.”

Biomedical engineering is among the newest fields in engineering. Prominent biomedical engineering applications include the development of biocompatible prostheses, various diagnostic and therapeutic medical devices, ranging from clinical equipment to micro-implants, and common diagnostic tools such as MRI and EEG machines.