How did you choose this career path?
My career journey began the summer before my sophomore year of high school when I traveled to a friend’s grandmother’s vacation home in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. One afternoon, when the rest of the group went sailing, I chose to stay back and visit with my friend’s grandmother. She had recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and it was getting worse. She could no longer remember recent events or people in her own family. I spent about two hours talking with her. As the vacation ended, the elderly lady could not remember who her own son or grandson (my friend) was. However, she looked me straight in the eye and remembered not only my name but vivid details of our conversation. I felt like I had made an impact on her and began to develop an interest in learning more about the disease and how I may be able to help find a cure.
The next leg of that journey also came in high school during a biology class in which my teacher required students to locate and summarize current events related to the human body. I stumbled across a prosthetic hand called the Proto One that could sense heat and was controlled by the brain. I immediately realized how such a hand could help patients who had lost limbs and became passionate about studying the types of technologies that could help people – from those who had lost limbs to those who had lost memory function, like my friend’s grandmother. My challenge was finding a major that could fuel my interest and allow me to help others. Biomedical Engineering became that track.
What Exactly Does a Bioinformatics Engineer Do?
Today, I am a bioinformatics analyst for a private company. Bioinformatics is the combination of molecular biology with information technology. In other words, it combines the study of body systems with the computer. A bioinformatics analyst uses knowledge from computer science to manipulate and process complex research and medical data. Bioinformatics is just one specialty that Biomedical Engineers can have. Other specialties include Bioinstrumentation (fabricate, test and manufacture advanced medical instruments), Biochemistry (create products and medicines that harness the chemical changes in living things), and Biomechanics (combined use of mechanical engineering principals and biological knowledge to better understand how these areas intersect and how they can be used together to potentially improve peoples’ quality of life).
In my current job, I am developing systems that will make electronic clinical information about patients and diagnoses easily accessible so that medical professionals can seamlessly exchange, analyze and document information. In other words, with the systems that I am developing, doctors will be able to go online to one site, type in symptoms and learn about best practices in diagnosing and treating those symptoms. My ultimate goal is to have one global electronic healthcare system that would allow medical professionals all over the world to share with and learn from each other to ultimately help treat their patients. I particularly want to help those in underdeveloped areas easily diagnose and treat patients.
As part of my current job, I meet with medical professionals to learn about the problems and ideas they have for more easily exchanging information, and then try to develop electronic solutions to those problems.
How did you get to where you are today?
My biology class was the most important class I took in high school. I also spent many hours after school in the computer lab. After graduation, I began my college career at the University of Connecticut studying Bioinstrumentation. By sophomore year, I began to conduct research in Alzheimer’s and became very interested in learning how to help patients who suffered from Alzheimer’s. In my junior year, I was asked to decide on a specific track of Biomedical Engineering. I went abroad to the University of South Wales and met with several different professors who worked in a neural research lab, which is where I learned more about Bioinformatics. While in Wales, I started an independent study on electronic medial records to understand how we could exchange clinical information globally. This interest led me to select Bioinformatics as my major. I graduated in 2013 with a Bachelor of Science in Biomedical Engineering, with a focus on Bioinformatics.
What Skills or Interests Are Important?
There are many skills and interests one should have to go into this field. I would suggest knowing about electronic database management and be able to write in different computer languages. There is also a need for strong communication skills since much of this job is to understand what people need and to be able to deliver it. Along the way, you must communicate with end users on a regular basis. A bioinformatics engineer must also be organized and have an interest in computers, technology, and number crunching. On the flip side, creativity and innovation are important because the way they collect information and display data can make a significant difference in the end product. Finally, problem solving is critical. Engineers are the problem solvers of today’s problems.
What’s the Best Part of the Job?
The best part of my job is that every day I get to talk face to face with a doctor who is working on something important and needs more information about it. He can then return with that information and, in turn, make a positive impact on healthcare. The potential for helping others as limitless. Single doctors help one patient at a time but, with technology, we have the potential to help out a whole healthcare system. The biggest challenge of this job is that you can always make something work better or run faster with new technology. With constant advancements, it can be hard to keep up.
What Advice Would You Give to High School Students?
If I could provide advice to high school students who may be interested in bioinformatics, I would advise that they understand at least one computer programming language and be able to design different programs. Have a basic knowledge of computers and know how to type with all 10 fingers! Finally, try to get some experience in a medical setting so you can see how it all works. Biomedical engineering is a great career choice because there will always be a need to help people, and as a result there is a very high demand for graduates of this major.