Originally Published MDDI January 2002NEWS & ANALYSISBiomedical Studies Top Choice of Female Engineering StudentsGregg Nighswonger

Gregg Nighswonger

January 1, 2002

4 Min Read
Biomedical Studies Top Choice of Female Engineering Students

Originally Published MDDI January 2002


Biomedical Studies Top Choice of Female Engineering Students

Gregg Nighswonger

Percentage of biomedical engineering degrees awarded to women in 1999 and 2000.
(click to enlarge)

Biomedical engineers take an engineering approach toward solving medical problems. This relatively nascent but fast-growing field is responsible for new medical instruments, diagnostic equipment and imaging technologies of every kind, artificial organs, implants, and prosthetics. New areas include tissue engineering, telemedicine and bioinformatics—the technology of the genomic revolution.

Results of a recent study conducted by the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) suggest that biomedical engineering again leads all engineering disciplines in the percentage of degrees awarded to women at all levels—bachelor's, master's, and doctoral. The figure below shows the percentage of women receiving such degrees in 1999 and 2000. Although this year's survey responses are still being gathered and verified, the results indicate so far that 38.0% of biomedical engineering BS degrees were given to women, as were 36.5% of master's degrees, and 29.9% of doctoral degrees.

According to Michael Gibbons, project manager for surveys and statistics at ASEE, the data for 2001 numbers currently represent about 70% returns, "so it appears that the numbers should show an increase over last year." He explains that the data are based on responses from schools that have defined programs within the biomedical engineering discipline. "We leave it up to the schools to determine whether their programs should be included in this discipline," says Gibbons.

The involvement of women in biomedical engineering programs is significant when compared with enrollment in engineering programs as a whole, which is estimated to be about 20% nationwide. Though overall engineering enrollments slumped in the early 1990s, slight increases have been noted since 1996. At the same time, the number of women entering engineering, including biomedical, has nearly doubled in the last decade.

Commenting on the increasing enrollment number for female students, Jay R. Goldberg, PhD, director of the Marquette University healthcare technologies management program (Milwaukee), recalls that when he was an undergraduate in engineering in the late 1970s, "there were very few women in any engineering specialties." When he later began doctoral studies at Northwestern University, women made up 40–45% of the students. Herbert F. Voigt, PhD, professor of biomedical engineering at Boston University College of Engineering adds, "I have been following this for some time now and it is truly remarkable. For the past two years, 50% of Boston University freshman declaring their major as biomedical engineering have been women. This drops off somewhat with class standing for a variety of reasons, but 40% of those we graduate with BME degrees are women."

Voigt adds, "What is remarkable is that what has been happening at Boston University mirrors what is happening across the country."

Why is biomedical engineering an increasing draw for female students? Goldberg believes it involves the clinical side of the job. "I think medicine is attracting more women," he says, adding that he believes it is "because biomedical engineering has a more clinical and medical component to it that more females are attracted to it." Goldberg suggests that it combines a nurturing aspect of clinical practice with the technical side, which is attractive to students who are looking for both.

Similarly, Voigt suggests that biomedical engineering "offers young women—and men for that part—with interests in mathematics, science, and humanity an opportunity to explore these areas in college without having to consider working for the military/industrial complex or consumer markets." He adds, "Options in the medical field, including the medical products industry, are very real and are seen to be expanding with the ending of the Human Genome Project, and bioinformatics just starting."

Commenting on the career paths being followed by biomedical engineers, Goldberg says some of the students involved in the Marquette program are going into product design while others are preparing for management. Some, he adds, are not interested in being engineers with their engineering degrees but intend to go into sales or marketing instead.

"Companies are beginning to realize that some very smart people are becoming biomedical engineers," says Voigt. "And these companies recognize that a good number of the engineers are women."

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