The Romance of BME: For Incoming Freshman :>
BME. Beta Mu Epsilon.
It really stands for Biomedical Engineering, but its more of a fraternity with four year hazing than a credible major. However, seeing as I haven’t taken Systems Bioengineering I yet, I have no right to complain. All joking aside, Biomedical Engineering is an eclectic discipline that applies engineering principles to answer questions in biology and medicine. Industry-related career opportunities in BME include designing prosthetics, building medical devices, making pharmaceutical drugs, translating stem cells into clinical applications (hopefully), and tons and tons of consulting. There is also tons of research developing in BME, which includes improving image modalities such as CT and MRI, profiling tumor supressor genes using computational biology, and lots more! People say that BME is a dead major with no job opportunities for undergraduates, as you aren’t as skilled as an electrical engineer, programmer, or a biologist who specialized in their respective fields. However, I say give it some time. As we become an ageless generation where there is an exponential interest in the application of stem cells and human augmentation, who knows what the job market for BME will look like? If all else fails, you can always apply to medical school, as the course curriculum for BME is identical to that of the requirements for going PreMed. It’s tough, bleak, and unpredictable major, but it’s rewarding in the sense that it develops your intuition to be good at problem-solving and thinking, and encourages you to be creative with different disciplines and combine them in a way that can become meaningful in the world.
Take origami, for example. Origami is a traditional Japanese art, but within the past decade, engineers and mathematicians have found an enormous amount of mathematics in the crease patterns. Like math, origami has its own axioms that it must obey in order to successfully develop complicated structures that won’t collapse. The particular beauty of Origami in science is that engineers can calculate the right ratio and pattern of mountain folds and valley folds that will minimize or maximize the shape of paper objects. In astrophysics, the James Webb Space Telescope was sent to space using origami, as it was designed to compact in a small structure during launch, and then fold out into a large telescope once it was in space. In medicine, scientists have been able to develop an origami heart stent, which it enters the arteries as an extremely small device, and then folds out to keep the walls of the arteries from being blocked. Not to mention the other possibilities it could have in Biomedical Engineering as we could make more efficient devices using origami and better compact and fit it into the human body. Origami is a mathematical art that is designed so precisely that in the common eye, we don’t see clever uses of theorems or axioms, we see “art.” When I think of BME, I think of elegant, beautiful math coming together that you can eventually end up holding in your hands, and marvel at how it can potentially end up saving hundreds, thousands, or millions of lives.
The Woes of being Indecisive
(In this part of my blog, I’ll be giving you a real plight in my freshman year that lasted around January to April, and it’ll be a bit personal. Sorry, it’s a bit academic ranty, but it provides an example of a real life choice I had to make, and hopefully, you can learn from it too. Also it’s a blog about BME. L0lz, how cool did you think it could be? I’ll share my many tales of sexiling roommates and chugging Everclear left n right, you know meeee, but not now~~)
The mysterious, uncharted areas of research and career paths in BME, however exciting they might be to explore, can also become a double-edged sword that hacks at soul for nights on end and tears your dreams asunder. Literally. For those of you who are already set on a particular profession or school when you leave Hopkins, that’s great! For those of you like me who are susceptible to really technical-sounding (but cool!) descriptions of professors, concentrations and research papers, you might be stuck dwelling between choices before even making a move.
Before I even chose BME, I always wanted to do some clinical work with stem cells. My research experience at the National Institute of Health during high school has all been stem cell-related, so it made sense to concentrate in Cell/Tissue Engineering as I had already built the foundation. This was a science I extremely enjoyed learning about, and I wouldn’t have minded devoting myself to this specialty for the next 6-7 years in a PhD program (that’s how much I loved it). Coming here though, I was exposed to medical imaging, computational biology, essentially “the works” of exciting science. I was window-shopping through tabs and tabs of different professors in (http://www.bme.jhu.edu/people/primary). Nitish V. Thakor be always looking pretty suave in his profile.
To be serious (and goofy because I love metaphors), my struggle of picking a concentration or career path is much more than just a fleeting infatuation with “cool science.” I wanted to devote myself to the application of Cell/Tissue Engineering, be it through becoming a doctor or a staff scientist working in a lab, because I believe that one day stem cells will be a viable therapeutic treatment for a majority of illnesses, especially large neurodegenerative disorders like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. I was a disciple that eagerly received the gospel of stem cell applications in review papers that got published, as every step of progress means so, so much to those inflicted with someone they know that have these diseases. I was a believer, ready to participate on the next crusade of exploring the unique qualities of stem cells. But when it came time to accepting a research position from Professor Warren Grayson at the Wilmer Eye Institute, I couldn’t 100% accept. One of the hardest offers I had to turn down. (Pretty dramatic writing this l0l) Even as I write this, I have a sinking feeling if I even made the right choice, but I knew that if I committed myself to his lab, I would have had to at least stay 2 years, and forbid myself from having heretic thoughts of switching labs. Wet lab experience is something that can’t be really obtained from a book or the internet, and as a result, Principal Investigators working in wet lab don’t like their undergraduate researchers leaving after teaching them a valuable skill set.
Instead, I chose computer science double major! Kind of left field, eh? After all of that description of my passion, I abandon it mid-blog to talk about something else. I’ve already droned origami and stem cells, I’ll save you some dribble about the “magic” of computer science, blah blah I’m tired rambling. A bit lame. Assuming I don’t like computer science for dumb reasons, to cut it short, I already had wet lab experience with stem cells, and computer science experience, no matter where you go, will always end up being extremely pertinent. A switch from CS to stem cell work looked possible, as computational biology can involve stem cells, while on the other hand, a switch from stem cell to CS seemed unrealistic. (I’ll let you know how this turns out)
Regardless of whether I end up making the right choice or not, in general, when you are at this kind of crossroad in your life, where the next academic step you make can become the foundation of the career you end up following, choose not only wisely, but also decisively. As you might have picked up from this blog, choosing Computational Biology over stem cells was an extremely difficult choice for me to make, and I let it drag on for months before I finally decided to concentrate and also double major in Computer Science. People will say you have time to explore in your four years of Hopkins, but me, if I had this crisis even a month later, I wouldn’t have oriented my summer schedule to be able to finish my double major in 4 years. Had I not realize I would need to take Linear Algebra and Discrete Mathematics over the summer, I would have been overburdened in my Sophomore or Junior year, and probably fallen under the weight of an extra 4 credits. I would have also wasted a summer not specializing in computational biology by doing different research, as experience is everything in terms of getting into lab positions, getting papers, getting into graduate school or start ups, and etc…. It’s this harsh, results-only-matter reality that hits your fantasy and aspirations, and you have to micromanage these differing thoughts extremely efficiently if you want to follow through on at least one of the academic passions you enjoy.
In this time span from January to April, I stopped dilly dallying in my choices after reading a paragraph in “The Bell Jar”, by Sylvia Plath (recommended by a friend!), which I think might be one of the most important paragraphs I have read, as I can relate to this in my entire life.
“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”
― Sylvia Plath, Bell Jar
If you become too indecisive on opportunities, especially in college, these opportunities will pass on to someone else who can make the right choice quicker.
Quick self reflection while I’m already talking about it
On a personal note, I realize that one of my most horrible qualities is my inability to realize what’s best in front of me. When people give me a yes or no choice, where a yes would require me to come to a banquet, party, or do some extra work, to my chagrin, every now and then, I answer yes for the sake of having options. I realize that as I’m writing this…I like having a giant fig tree, for the sake of having lots of figs to choose from, because I believe somewhere in my self-centered logic, if I have more figs to choose from, the better opportunities that will come to me. Actually that’s a bit unfair to myself. Some times I just say yes because I think I have the time, and then something unavoidable happens that I have to re-prioritize things. For example, I told a coworker 3 days ago I was going to work on Thursday, but I ended up being dragged back home from Baltimore that Thursday because of Father’s Day. Honestly, I try really hard to avoid pulling this kind of stunt, because it’s always unfair to the person who’s time I’m wasting or getting their hopes up. Overall, I strive to be a more dependable person, and it’s one of the few aspects I believe I can self-improve on. I actually started this blog to try and have some good habits, but as you might have seen from my activity, I’m not the most active blogger (at least I haven’t totally abandoned this blog! haha). Maybe if I wasn’t such a perfectionist, I would have more time to reach for more figs (I would probably want to write more blogs if I didn’t feel the urge to write 2000 words for every single one of them!) I’m thinking maybe 1 magnum-opus-sized blog each month? No, that’s too much. I’ll figure it out, get off meee.
Anyways, this quote means a lot to me, and it’s something that sticks in my head every day. In almost every decision I make, I think of this quote often beforehand to remind myself that I should always plant smaller fig trees.