What Is Biomedical Engineering?

Required coursework, job prospects, and average salaries for graduates

Female Engineer Repairing Medical Device
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Biomedical engineering is an interdisciplinary field that weds the biological sciences with engineering design. The general goal of the field is to improve healthcare by developing engineering solutions for assessing, diagnosing, and treating various medical conditions. The field spans a wide range of applications including medical imaging, prosthetics, wearable technology, and implantable drug delivery systems.

Key Takeaways: Biomedical Engineering

  • Biomedical engineering draws upon many fields including biology, chemistry, physics, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, and materials science.
  • Biomedical engineers can work for hospitals, universities, pharmaceutical companies, and private manufacturing companies.
  • The field is diverse, and research specialties range from large full-body imaging equipment to injectable nanorobots.

What Do Biomedical Engineers Do?

In general terms, biomedical engineers use their engineering skills to advance healthcare and improve the quality of human life. We're all familiar with some of the products created by biomedical engineers such as dental implants, dialysis machines, prosthetic limbs, MRI devices, and corrective lenses.

The actual jobs performed by biomedical engineers vary widely. Some work largely with computers and information technologies in order to analyze and understand complex biological systems. As one example, genetic analyses conducted in medical laboratories as well as companies such as 23andMe require the development of robust computer systems for number crunching.

Other biomedical engineers work with biomaterials, a field that overlaps with materials engineering. A biomaterial is any material that interacts with a biological system. A hip implant, for example, must be made of a strong and durable material that can survive within a human body. All implants, needles, stents, and sutures need to be made from carefully engineered materials that can perform their designated task without causing a harmful reaction from the human body. Artificial organs are an emerging area of study that depends heavily upon experts in biomaterials.

As with all technologies, advancements in biomedical engineering are often linked to creating smaller medical devices. Bionanotechnology is a growing field as engineers and medical professionals work to develop new methods for delivering medicines and gene therapy, diagnosing health, and repairing the body. Nanorobots the size of a blood cell already exist, and we can expect to see significant advancements on this front.

Biomedical engineers frequently work in hospitals, universities, and companies that develop products in the health field.

College Coursework in Biomedical Engineering

To be a biomedical engineer, you will need a minimum of a bachelors degree. As with all engineering fields, you'll have a core curriculum that includes physics, general chemistry, and mathematics through multi-variable calculus and differential equations. Unlike most engineering fields, the coursework will have a significant focus on the biological sciences. Typical courses include:

  • Molecular Biology
  • Fluid Mechanics
  • Organic Chemistry
  • Biomechanics
  • Cell and Tissue Engineering
  • Biosystems and Circuits
  • Biomaterials
  • Qualitative Physiology

The interdisciplinary nature of biomechanical engineering means that students need to excel in several STEM fields. The major can be a good choice for students with broad interests in math and the sciences.

Students who want to advance into engineering management would be wise to supplement their undergraduate education with courses in leadership, writing and communication skills, and business.

Best Schools for Biomedical Engineering

Biomedical engineering is a growing field that is projected to keep expanding as populations increase in both number and age. For this reason, more and more schools have been adding biomedical engineering to their STEM offerings. The best schools for biomedical engineering tend to have large programs with a talented faculty, well-equipped research facilities, and access to area hospitals and medical facilities.

  • Duke University: Duke's BME department is just a short walk from the highly regarded Duke University Hospital and School of Medicine, so it has been easy to develop meaningful collaborations between engineering and the health sciences. The program is supported by 34 tenure-track faculty members and graduates about 100 bachelor's degree students a year. Duke is home to 10 centers and institutes related to biomedical engineering.
  • Georgia Tech: Georgia Tech is one of the nation's top public universities, and it tends to rank highly for all engineering fields. Biomedical engineering is no exception. The university's Atlanta location is a true asset, and the BME program has a strong research and educational partnership with neighboring Emory University. The program emphasizes problem-based learning, design, and independent research, so students graduate with plenty of hands-on experience.
  • Johns Hopkins University: Johns Hopkins does not typically top lists of best engineering programs, but biomedical engineering is a clear exception. JHU often ranks #1 in the country for BME. The university has long been a leader in biological and health sciences from the undergraduate to doctoral levels. Research opportunities abound with 11 affiliated centers and institutes, and the university is proud of its new BME Design Studio—an open floor-plan workspace where students can meet, brainstorm, and create prototypes of biomedical devices.
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology: MIT graduates about 50 biomedical engineers each year, and another 50 from its BME graduate programs. The institute has long had a well-funded program for supporting and encouraging undergraduate research, and undergrads can work alongside graduate students, faculty members, and medical professionals at the school's 10 affiliated research centers.
  • Stanford University: The three pillars of Stanford's BSE program—"Measure, Model, Make"—highlights the school's emphasis on the act of creating. The program resides jointly in the School of Engineering and the School of Medicine leading to unimpeded collaboration between engineering and the life sciences. From the Functional Genomics Facility to the Biodesign Collaboratory to the Transgenic Animal Facility, Stanford has the facilities and resources to support a wide range of biomedical engineering research.
  • University of California at San Diego: One of two public universities on this list, UCSD awards about 100 bachelors degrees in biomedical engineering each year. The program was founded in 1994, but has quickly grown to preeminence through its thoughtful collaboration between the Schools of Engineering and Medicine. UCSD has developed for focus areas where it truly excels: cancer, cardiovascular disease, metabolic disorders, and neurodegenerative diseases.

Average Salaries for Biomedical Engineers

Engineering fields tend to have salaries that are much higher than national averages for all jobs, and biomedical engineering fits this trend. According to PayScale.com, the average annual pay for a biomedical engineering is $66,000 early in an employee's career, and $110,300 by mid-career. These numbers are slightly below electrical engineering and aerospace engineering, but a little bit higher than mechanical engineering and materials engineering. The Bureau of Labor Statistics states that the median pay for biomedical engineers was $88,040 in 2017, and that there are a little over 21,000 people employed in the field.