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By Michael Morella
Eventually, Karin Hwang wants to reengineer injured human brains. But right now she's intent on launching her first invention, a device for use by expectant mothers that detects signs the baby may arrive too early.
Hwang, 23, earned a master's degree in biomedical engineering from Johns Hopkins University last May, entering one of the few sizzling parts of the job market. Positions in her chosen field are expected to grow by 72 percent between 2008 and 2018, far outpacing the 11 percent average for all engineering fields.
From disposable "lab-on-a-chip" diagnostic tests, which offer quick at-home answers, to regenerative techniques that build new skin and tissue, the medical technologies that bioengineers develop help push the envelope in hospitals and clinics. Hwang and three fellow students at the Hopkins Center for Bioengineering Innovation and Design spent a year developing and testing a cervical ring that alerts pregnant women to trouble. They have since cofounded a Baltimore start-up called CervoCheck to market the product and hope to enter clinical trials by next year, then get Food and Drug Administration approval.
Many of the almost 12,000 new jobs projected in bioengineering will open up in industry. But biomedical engineers have the kind of "big-picture creativity" that employers value across the public and private sectors, says Kenneth Lutchen, dean of Boston University's College of Engineering and president of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering.
St. Jude Medical, a St. Paul, Minn.-based company that primarily develops heart and spinal cord stimulation devices, hires about two dozen new biomedical engineering graduates each year, according to Paul Bae, senior vice president of administration. Medtronic, which produces a variety of technologies, from pacemakers and insulin pumps to image-guided surgery systems, also actively recruits recent bioengineering grads. At pharmaceutical companies, bioengineers play critical roles in developing the cutting-edge drugs that adapt to an individual's own cells, for example.
Many grads in the field go on to earn medical degrees or work in hospitals. Others pursue regulatory positions with the FDA or other government agencies, or in biotech or intellectual property law, where they might spend their days settling patent disputes or securing licensing for medical products. Bioengineers with graduate degrees tend to start at upwards of $55,000 a year, with some making more than twice that amount, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers.
Graduate programs in the field are spreading rapidly, too -- from 103 master's and doctoral programs in 2000 to 177 in 2009, according to the American Society for Engineering Education. Many, like the one at Johns Hopkins, now instruct students not just how to build devices but also how to patent and market them.
"I don't know of another career that offers you the same latitude," says Joseph Smith, chief medical and science officer at the West Wireless Health Institute, a La Jolla, Calif., nonprofit whose aim is to lower runaway healthcare costs by using wireless health technology like remote sensors and enhanced communications systems.
Smith, who trained in the field himself and has also been a practicing physician, thinks it may well be the biomedical engineers of the world who can actually get that cost-cutting done.
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