Engineering is not always an end in itself. Often, it becomes a necessary companion to other science disciplines, like medicine.
Jamie Cone is Engineer II at BD Technologies & Innovation in Research Triangle Park, NC. She graduated from North Carolina State University with a Bachelor of Science degree in Biomedical Engineering with a concentration in biomaterials. One of her responsibilities involves using additive manufacturing equipment in the development of medical components.
Jamie wanted to be involved in the medical industry from a young age. “I always saw myself being either a nurse or a doctor. However, the more I learned about the education requirements for different careers in high school, the more I started to consider other options.”
The long-term educational commitment to be a doctor or nurse was not something Jamie wanted. “I was in my first year of college at NC State University and I was in the ‘first year college’ program, meaning I had not declared a major. I was still undecided and trying to figure out what I wanted to do. Finally, after talking to several peers and having a long talk with my Dad, I realized that engineering would be a good fit for me. I had always been good at math and science and I have been a creative person since I was very young – I took lots of art classes and design classes in high school. Once I heard about the Biomedical Engineering program at NC State, I knew that I needed to apply, and if I was accepted, then I would know that it was meant to be. That was exactly what happened.”
Many engineers can point to a mentor or historical example for why they chose this field. Jamie, though, did not have the benefit of an engineering mentor. “I think that is why it was so scary for me to make the decision to become an engineer, because I did not know what I was getting myself into. I was taking a leap of faith and trusting that it would lead me to a bright future.”
She soon discovered that solving problems is part of the fun of engineering. She says she is in the middle of conquering one of her greatest engineering challenges, which involves additive manufacturing (AM).
Jamie is knowledgeable and comfortable using additive manufacturing (AM), especially in the design of medical components. Some of the engineers she works with, though, have limited experience with this technology.
“My greatest challenge as an engineer has been to educate colleagues about AM and its benefits. Because I work for a huge medical injection molding company that molds billions of parts per year, 3D printing introduces a whole new way of thinking and designing for medical components. I have been part of the most recent efforts to try and educate and persuade other engineers within our company to think differently and to trust that AM can be an alternative method to traditional manufacturing, and one that can significantly save time and money.
“As my department has slowly spread the word about 3D printing capabilities, guidelines for choosing the best applications for 3D printing, and developed course content for designing for additive manufacturing, we have seen an increase in the interest to learn more about the various 3D printing technologies and materials available today, as well as a rise in the desire to build more prototypes across all of our business units. All of these efforts should eventually lead to significant growth in low volume production opportunities as well as more parts being 3D printed for manufacturing spare parts, which could result in monumental savings for the various business units and manufacturing sites. In addition to this, it has also been very rewarding to be able to successfully print parts that have initially seemed impossible.”
Responding to a pandemic
Recently, in these challenging times of the COVID-19 pandemic, BD Technologies & Innovation focused its resources on addressing three critical needs: equipping healthcare partners with a comprehensive suite of technologies and solutions that are essential to discovering more about the virus; diagnosing patients at scale; and supporting patient care.
BD launched three new molecular (PCR) tests to diagnose COVID-19, as well as a new point of care antigen test to expand access to testing beyond reference labs and hospitals. These tests would normally take months or years to develop, but were completed in a fraction of that time because of the urgent need to expand diagnostic testing to help track and contain the pandemic.
BD experienced unprecedented demand for certain equipment, especially for medication delivery systems, vascular access devices, and critical care management supplies in the wake of hospital surges.
“Our manufacturing facilities had to massively increase production,” says Jamie, “in some cases producing more in one week than in the whole of the previous year. BD teams were deployed to the front-lines to install medical equipment as cities erected emergency field hospitals, and we partnered with the Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America (SHEA) to mobilize and launch an advanced program on infection prevention and control to support training of new staff.”
BD life sciences instruments and reagents are used by researchers to better understand the body’s immune response to infection, which is essential for discovering potential treatments and for developing new vaccines. BD is supporting the U.S. public health response by providing precise data on COVID-19 infections to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) from the company’s proprietary surveillance and reporting system, BD MedMined. And BD is preparing for a massive global vaccination campaign by working with governments to advance plans for manufacturing and stockpiling of immunization devices.
Spreading the word
Many young women show interest in science and an aptitude for math, but instead of directly heading into engineering, they sort of stumble into it by accident. It would be nice if it was more acceptable for women to become engineers.
Noted Jaime, “it is important to pique the interests of girls at a young age–as young as elementary school–with engineering and science activities, and lessons that introduce them to basic engineering principles early on. I think circumstances have probably improved a bit since I was younger, but I never even learned about engineering until high school and college.
“I think it is also important to promote career discovery programs for young women that will allow them to explore their potential, curiosity, and passion for innovation. By developing these unique and interesting experiences for girls, they can explore technology in an interactive and insightful way, which can give them practical knowledge and understanding of the impact that they can have by being part of innovative projects.”
Plus, it gives young women a chance to showcase their unique contribution to engineering, as women tend to think differently and approach engineering problems and challenges using out-of-the-box tactics, which can be advantageous for engineering problem solving.
“Putting gender aside as a factor,” adds Jaime, “I do believe that it has been proven that there are some significant differences in the way the male and female brains work. Because of this, women may be able to use these differences to their advantage to solve a problem in a way that a male would have never thought of. Women may also be able to communicate their ideas more effectively or voice ideas in a different way. Most women are also smaller framed than men and therefore can exceed with fine motor skills and coordination. Lastly, I think most people would agree with me that most women overanalyze almost everything, and so they may be less likely than men to miss small details.”
These advantages, though, do not necessarily make it easier for women in today’s engineering world.
“Thankfully, I have not personally felt any barriers as a woman engineer in my career so far. However, I have witnessed and heard about others’ experiences. I think women engineers feel like they have to prove their worth in the workplace due to their skills and/or commitment being questioned. Women may feel intimidated when they are predominantly surrounded by men and have concerns about their voice being heard. I also feel like in some environments it is more difficult for women to get promoted or to get a pay raise, or even equal pay to those at the same level as them. However, I think this it is very dependent on the company and the culture in the workplace. I think it is also very important to have professional mentorships so that women engineers can get advice from other women who have experienced difficult situations that can provide insight on how to react and handle these difficult situations.”
Every new engineer has those moments that challenge their confidence. And every engineer has their own approach to master confidence.
For Jamie, the accumulation of experience was key. “The more times that I was successful with the decisions I made on the job, the greater my confidence became. To be successful, I observed senior engineers that were able to guide me and instruct me on the best methods for solving problems. I feel like I was able to understand the way that those engineers thought through solving specific problems so that I could take the same approach with similar problems.
“I was also able to witness some of the mistakes that others made, which helped me understand some initial ideas to avoid. However, at the same time, I think it is also important to not hold back or be afraid to try new experiments that haven’t been done before. As long as you have some justification for why the idea might work, then it is definitely worth discovering what the outcome will be. I think it is always good to list out your options for possible actions or solutions and weigh out the predicted outcomes for those various actions. Then you can prioritize what you think is the best possible outcome and have all the alternative actions as backup options to try next time.
“I think it is also very important to thoroughly think through your ideas and methods and don’t be too quick to act, similarly to the saying “think before you speak.” You want to make sure you’re preventing any avoidable negative outcomes solely based on the timing of your actions.”
Finding the fun
Many things motivate women and men to pursue careers in engineering. A lesser mentioned motivation is how fun it is to be an engineer.
“The most fun thing about engineering is working to solve a problem and then finding the solution and knowing that you figured out how to make something work successfully, notes Jamie. “I am fortunate enough that I have had a lot of freedom in my engineering career to try any idea I may have, no matter how crazy it seems, just to see what the outcome is. Experimentation is also one of the best ways to gain knowledge, whether it is through a positive or negative outcome. For example, and as I mentioned before, it is very rewarding to be faced with a geometry that seems impossible to 3D print, and trying several different iterations until you are finally successful and are able to produce a nearly perfect part. Lastly, it is really exciting to be able to work with so many different project groups within my company at all stages of their development process and see their prototypes change over time as their designs are modified, and then eventually see a medical product come to fruition.”