Pursuing Medicine Through Engineering
Medical careers require a particular skill set: problem-solving, synthesis of a lot of information, endurance, and a genuine commitment to service and research. People take a variety of paths to become doctors, but engineers, who learn these skills through their coursework, develop unique strengths for success in medicine. The Health Professions Program (HPP) at Carnegie Mellon University makes this possible for engineering students.
As soon as a student steps on to campus during orientation week, they can meet with Health Professions Program Director Jason D’Antonio. The HPP assists students in all majors in pursuing a profession in medicine, including engineers.
“The engineering discipline diversifies a student’s curriculum, and it gives these students a way of problem-solving and critically thinking about situations that they apply when working in team-based environments, both in med school and beyond,” says D’Antonio.
As the advisor for the HPP, D’Antonio helps students schedule courses so that they complete all of the pre-med track and engineering courses in four years, without overloading. For many students, learning time management and problem-solving is essential for their success as physicians.
Nicole Huang (MechE ’16) became involved with the HPP as a first-year because she wanted guidance in combining her passions for both medicine and mechanical engineering. “The most valuable thing that I gained from engineering school was the work ethic,” says Huang, now a first-year medical student at Virginia Commonwealth School of Medicine.
At Carnegie Mellon, she became very involved with Global Medical Brigades, a student-led organization that takes an annual trip to an underserved area in Latin America to provide medical attention to those in need. Huang traveled to Nicaragua, Honduras, and Panama as part of the organization.
The HPP also provides tools for students to find research and clinical experience, determine what kind of medical program they want, apply to medical school, and find their own unique path.
Neil Carleton (MechE/BME ’17) took advantage of the HPP from day one because he knew he would ultimately pursue medicine, but wanted a background in engineering. After his first year at Carnegie Mellon, he landed a position in a cancer research lab at Johns Hopkins University with the help of Dr. D’Antonio. With experience from the cancer research lab and Professor Keith Cook’s Biogengineered Organs lab, Carleton has been accepted into multiple M.D./Ph.D. programs.
“Advising was key,” says Carleton. “Dr. D’Antonio helped me land that first research experience, which formed the basis for what I want to do going forward.”
D’Antonio encourages students to get experience early by volunteering at a local hospital or shadowing physicians. Once they have some clinical experience, then the HPP places students in a preceptorship program, where students can shadow young residents at UPMC Shadyside. The program gives students an idea of what it’s like right after medical school, when it can be tough. D’Antonio then helps students get involved in hospice or other programs where they can directly interact with patients.
“That interactive experience checks the sense of compassion and commitment it takes to be a doctor,” says D’Antonio. “Once they get past that novelty phase and they see what it’s going to be like for the next 30 years or so, they can decide if that’s still what they want to pursue.”
The HPP office also assists students through a committee interview, a two-hour practice interview conducted by D’Antonio and two other faculty to prepare students for the real medical school interview. The committee then generates a letter that objectively evaluates the student’s application and interview. This service is also available to alumni who wish to apply to medical school after graduating.
“The committee letter signifies that we’ve had a working relationship with the student and that the student has been proactive,” says D’Antonio. “It reflects well on the student to have it.”
For D’Antonio, the most important part of his role is helping students find the right path. For engineers, having that degree lets them pursue another career if medicine isn’t ultimately where they end up. But it also gives them the technical, research-oriented, and rigorous background needed to be successful in medicine.
Evan Fisch (CEE/BME ’14) decided he wanted to pursue medicine while taking a biomedical engineering design course in his junior year. The HPP program helped him make that goal a reality, with his background in engineering helping him in small and large ways.
“I fully intend on applying my engineering background in my career,” says Fisch, a third-year medical student at Baylor College of Medicine, “whether that’s a career pivot where I work on developing medical devices, or if that’s contending to think and teach like an engineer as a physician.”