How I came to City of Hope: the transition from engineering to biology

March 6, 2012 | by Nick Snead

Nick SneadI often joke that, when I was studying biomedical engineering, we were only encouraged to learn the bare minimum of the biology that we needed to know in order to do our project. It was, however, partly true. The fundamental biology behind our engineering projects seemed drastically over-simplified.

Most of the professors in my undergraduate institution focused on building MRI machines, modeling the flow of blood through plaque-filled arteries for athlerosclerosis patients or studying the moments and forces on the various degrees of freedom of the knees of skiers. I was thrilled when I saw that the department had appointed a professor who did genetic engineering. My undergraduate advisor was developing artificial RNA gene circuits in bacteria, where the bacteria would give "read-outs" based on their environment. So, despite being in the biomedical engineering (BME) department, I received training and performed experiments using common recombinant DNA technology techniques — techniques I would have acquired if I had joined any microbiology or molecular biology lab. My undergraduate keystone senior project was the two-year culmination of my undergraduate research.

After earning a bachelor's and master's degree in BME, I decided to turn my studies more toward molecular biology. Through some literature research and interactions with the institution’s students and faculty, City of Hope quickly became my first choice. Initially, I thought it was going to be a major "sacrifice" to leave the engineering realm and a difficult transition to "pure" cell and molecular biology. However, with the combination of my personal dedication and the fostering environment of City of Hope, I am very happy to be where I am today.

The biggest difference between an education in engineering and one in biological sciences, of course, is the content of the coursework. I would argue that only recently have labs and students been truly self-sufficient in bridging the gap between engineering and biological science. Previously, collaborations with other groups achieved this bridging. In fact, my casual observation is that many industry career positions can be fulfilled with either a traditional engineering degree or a life-science degree. I have a handful of BME friends working for arterial stent medical device companies, and they explain that the majority of the product developers are mechanical or materials science engineers, not biomedical engineers. Likewise, my BME friends who work in the biotech industry say that the majority of their colleagues are molecular biology, cell biology, or biochemistry majors.

At this point, I would like to pursue a career in industry, and therefore I feel confident that I am not "sacrificing" anything by redirecting my studies to molecular biology. While I will be doing more qRT-PCR and western blots instead of dynamic light scattering and nanoparticle synthesis, I am very happy to be a part of the City of Hope community.

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