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Why Women Are Embracing Biomedical Engineering

Is it possible that women could end up dominating biomedical engineering--or at least gain some workforce parity with men in coming years?

Shreya Chandrasekhar, a graduate student in SJSU's biomedical engineering program, says many women are drawn to the field out of altruism.

It is still a pretty open question. But one had to at least hope for more gender diversity after a recent informal talk with about a dozen San Jose State University biomedical engineering students at BIOMEDevice San Jose.

The biomedical engineering program has a stronger female presence than male at the university. One student, who was obtaining a master's at the university, said he noticed that women outnumbered men when attending the bioengineering program at the University of California, Berkeley as well. Syracuse University professor Andrew Darling, PhD, said in a report earlier this year that women outnumber men in the freshmen class of that university as well.

Nationwide, however, one gets the impression that there are still more men than women in biomedical engineering--albeit by a fairly narrow margin. In 2000, some 39% of BME bachelor degrees were awarded to women, which is the highest percentage of any engineering discipline, according to the American Society for Engineering Education. A source pointing to 2011 numbers says 40% of graduates earning BME degrees were women.

At present, women remain underrepresented in the biomedical engineering workforce as well as in academic positions. More striking, in 2012, Forbes put biomedical engineering on its top 10 list of the worst jobs for women. Coming in at No. 8 on the list, biomedical engineers fared slightly better than secretaries. In that article, the percentage of professional women biomedical engineers was cited as 18.2%.

Nationwide, a growing number of women are beginning to make a name for themselves in the medical device industries. For instance, Elizabeth Holmes (30), the founder of Theranos (Palo Alto, CA), happens to be the youngest recipient of 2015 Horatio Alger Award for exceptional leadership. Her blood diagnostics company also has helped her become the youngest female billionaire in the United States.

The field of biomedical engineering is relatively new, and is quickly growing, making the field potentially attractive to a growing number of students, including women, who have outnumbered men on college campuses for decades.

A paper published in 2010 by the American Society for Engineering Education acknowledges hurdles in academia for females entering biomedical engineering--especially at the post-graduate level--but suggests that "the field is inherently appealing to women, especially in comparison to the more traditional disciplines such as mechanical and electrical engineering." It continues: "[Women] are more connected to the biological and medical sciences, which have greater gender equity than engineering sciences."

A similar theme also emerged from the discussion with SJSU students. The students state that one of the main things that drew them to the field was the overarching desire to help others, a theme that also emerged in a survey of the BME student body.

Shreya Chandrasekhar, a graduate student in BME at SJSU says that she thinks women studying biomedical engineering are more driven by the idea of helping others than other fields of engineering. "At least that's what drives me to be a biomedical engineer," she says. "The world today is progressing towards breaking the stereotypes--be it men in nursing or women in engineering."

This altruism is also evident in how the students interact with each other, said Guna Selvaduray, SJSU professor in materials engineering who heads the BME department. The BME students at the university are by and large the most collaborative engineering group on the campus, he says.

Chandrasekhar reflects on how the desire to help others instilled in her an interest in medicine. Later, she became interested in engineering. "When it was time for me to choose a career path, I came across biomedical engineering, which allowed me to combine my dream to lessen the suffering of the sick with my interest in engineering," she says.

Refresh your medical device industry knowledge at MD&M West, in Anaheim, CA, February 10-12, 2015.

Brian Buntz is the editor-in-chief of MPMN and Qmed. Follow him on Twitter at @brian_buntz.

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