Applying math and science in practical ways to help people
| By Meinig School of Biomedical Engineering
Parker Dean, Undergraduate Student
Hometown: Acton, Massachusetts BME Degree Program: B.S. in BME, Biomechanics and Mechanobiology (BMMB) Lab affiliation: Dr. Jonathan Butcher
When I came to Cornell to join the engineering college, I had never heard of BME before. I knew that I wanted to apply math and science in practical ways to help people, and I was really interested in human biology, but I had always thought that there was no way to connect these two together. When I first learned about the BME program at the Major Fair, I knew immediately it was what I wanted to do because of how it interfaced biology and engineering. BME lets you understand human health in a completely unique way, and gives you the tools to make real differences in healthcare through innovation and understanding.
How did you decide on your concentration, Biomechanics and Mechanobiology (BMMB)?
Choosing a concentration was difficult for me, since I felt there was really interesting content in every distribution within the major. I work in the Butcher Lab, which focuses on researching the mechanics of tissues within the heart and how they develop, which gave me a deeper appreciation for how important mechanical interactions are to issues in human health. I’m very happy with the specialization I’ve gotten to do choosing BMMB and being able to make it my own through my interest in fluid mechanics and simulation; but what I appreciate most about the program is how we got to learn a little from each concentration, allowing us to be competent in multiple fields. It’s a skill that lets us be more valuable members of the interdisciplinary teams you need to be successful in the industry.
What have you learned while pursuing this major?
I feel like I’ve picked up a lot of important skills over the past few years, but the most important has absolutely been to have confidence in my own work. Imposter syndrome runs rampant through every college, but the project/design based assignments in BME, like the senior capstone project, have taught me how important it is not to second guess your abilities. Everyone has something great to offer in a team, and you have to believe in your ability to contribute to reach your goals.
Any advice for other students considering BME?
In my opinion, the most important thing to consider when joining BME at Cornell is to be open to learning about the many different topics in the discipline. For me, it was really cool to see how mechanical, electrical, and systems engineering all interfaced with human biology in different ways, but it can be difficult if you have to take a whole semester studying things outside of your interest. If you keep an open mind, there is something useful from every class you take here which can really help you in the long run.
Any interests outside of or in relationship to your scholarship?
In terms of extracurriculars, the first thing that comes to mind is undergraduate research. I’ve been really lucky to have the opportunity to work in two different labs in my time here, first at the Nydam Lab at the Cornell veterinary school, and for the past three years at the Butcher Lab in Weill Hall.
My research project is centered around 3D bioprinting, a process where we can engineer tissues to mimic those in the body, and even embed living cells in them - but my work is specifically around trying to push the limits of how tall and complex the prints can be by changing how we cure the material using UV light.
I’ve learned so many things from my research experience, from lab techniques to project and time management, and owe a lot of that to my Ph.D. student Ben Albert. The lab has a great culture and collaborative ideology, and it’s always a blast to be in the lab with everyone. I would really recommend anyone interested in research to give it a try at least once during their college experience!
The other really significant aspect of my experience here has been the Boxing Club. I spent a semester as a member my sophomore fall, and it was another example of a great culture and community here at Cornell. This semester is my second time acting as a club officer, where I get to run meetings and help foster that culture that I enjoyed so much earlier on.
What stands out to you about your Cornell BME experience so far and why?
Having the opportunity to go abroad to Spain during my undergraduate career was something really special, especially because it’s generally difficult to study abroad as an engineer (and sometimes more-so as a BME). While my time was cut a little short by COVID, spending a semester with a totally different group of people from all over the globe brought me a lot of world perspective. Madrid was also the perfect place to focus on improving and refining my Spanish, and I was still about to complete engineering coursework to stay on track with my degree by taking equivalent courses at ICAI Comillas. Definitely an unforgettable experience!
What’s the next step for you?
I’m super happy to say that I’ve been accepted into the M.Eng. program here at Cornell for BME! I knew that there were lots of advantages to pursuing a graduate degree, and I wanted to continue being part of the Cornell BME collaborative spirit with a graduate level design project. The moment I realized that this was definitely the path I wanted to take was at an information session for the BME M.Eng., where Dr. Newton De Faria explained what makes this program stand out in the biomedical graduate sphere. I have to thank him and my advisor Dr. Shivaun Archer for pushing me to strive for this, and hope to use the knowledge and skills I gain there to make both programs proud!
Favorite quote that helps inspire you in your work/life?
It’s not quite a quote, but one of the most impactful stories on my motivation is of Elena García Armada, President and CEO of Marsi Bionics, a Madrid-based medical device company specializing in pediatric gait exoskeletons. In a podcast interview on entrepreneurship, she said that she had always seen herself as a scientist and an engineer, but never an entrepreneur; but when she realized that the only way to get her product to children and change lives was to make it a startup, she was committed to do whatever it takes to get it there, including entering a whole new world outside of her own. I never felt confident enough that I could start my own project and get it off the ground, but after hearing that, I knew that I needed to be equipped for whichever way I can make the world a better place through BME.
Erica Pratt's doctoral work in Dr. Brian Kirby's lab focused on investigating circulating tumor cells (CTCs) in the peripheral blood system of patients with solid tumors and how these cells can be used as a noninvasive tumor surrogate, and as prognostic biomarkers for survival in advanced disease.
Read more about Erica D. Pratt, Ph.D. 2015