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Vital Signs: Biomedical engineering students chart careers through dual medical, research internship

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For one student, the moment came while watching a boy twitch his fingers for the first time after being rendered paraplegic by a car accident. For another, it occurred while watching experimental nanomaterials kill the cancer cells in which they were embedded. For another, a moment that helped solidify his career choice happened after viewing the intricate scars on a human heart that had undergone triple bypass surgery.

Fifteen biomedical engineering students from The University of Texas at Austin recently traveled to Houston to experience moments like these as part of a summer internship program at the Texas Medical Center.

Scott Lundy and Justin Lo
Scott Lundy (left) and Justin Lo attended the biomedical engineering internship and will soon start a medical/research program and medical school, respectively. Behind them is a poster Lundy prepared about his research during the 2004 internship.

The internship’s goal: give these undergrads and eight at Rice University the rare opportunity to see what it’s like to be a doctor who also conducts research. That often intense dual world is one of their career choices.

The summer program mirrors the career’s intensity, while providing an intimate knowledge of the human body, and exposure to research and to people receiving medical care. In doing so, the internship has been a career stepping stone for former participants.

“When I came to the College of Engineering, I told my parents I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I knew I didn’t want to be a doctor,” says Scott Lundy, who participated in the Biomedical Engineering Clinical and Research Internship Program in 2004 and 2005.

Being from a family of pilots and airline industry veterans, Lundy started out in aerospace engineering.

“I always thought of myself as an analytical and mathematical person,” he says. “I didn’t want anything ‘organic.’”

The chance to use engineering approaches to address medical needs drew his interest after taking a few biomedical engineering courses his sophomore year. Now, as a result of seeing doctors in action and biomedical technology’s impact on patients during the internships, Lundy has accepted a position in the University of Washington’s training program for M.D./Ph.D.s.

“The more I saw how complementary medicine and research are, the more I knew I wouldn’t be happy unless I was doing both,” Lundy says.

Physician-scientists must understand what it takes to make medical procedures work for human patients, as well as their emotional impact. They also must have first-hand knowledge of how to conduct laboratory research. Combining the two capabilities allows for studies that are more likely to bring about medical advances.

Erika Zabre
Erika Zabre is creating the foundation for her dream career through this summer’s internship.

But the seven years required for dual-degree programs like the one Lundy begins in the fall can be daunting to consider blindly. The Clinical and Research Internship Program gives sophomores and juniors in biomedical engineering an experience with the intensity of medical school that shows them the physician-scientist’s world.

The exposure comes in handy regardless of whether participants pursue a pure research career, go into industry or become doctors, notes Rebecca Richards-Kortum, who funds the program through her Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professorship. The chair of the Department of Bioengineering at Rice, Richards-Kortum developed the internship program while on the engineering faculty at The University of Texas at Austin to provide a broad foundation that will be beneficial regardless of career path.

“Biomedical engineering is a discipline that bridges basic science, engineering and medicine, requiring you to communicate with people in all three areas,” she says.

That foundation is exactly what Erika Zabre wants this summer as she starts on a path she’s mapped out in her mind. The granddaughter of a physician, she plans to develop a rehabilitation center in Chihuahua, Mexico, to provide prosthetics and other assistance to people with disabilities. She noted that poor residents of the city where she grew up can’t afford to travel to rehab centers outside Chihuahua.

“My purpose in life is to improve the lives of people with disabilities,” she says.

She’s particularly excited about research she’ll do in a biomechanics lab at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston as part of the internship.

If students from previous summers are any indication, the nine-week internship may suggest other career paths for Zabre.

“It’s incredible how much they can pack into a summer,” says Christy Steger, who attended the 2004 program as a pre-med student. The program convinced her to pursue a doctorate instead at Rice University.

Timothy Hsu, Carmen Rios and Surbhi Kumari examine a human brain in the anatomy lab after a lecture on the brain and cranial nerves
Timothy Hsu (left), Carmen Rios (center) and Surbhi Kumari examine a human brain in the anatomy lab after a lecture on the brain and cranial nerves.

video icon Watch the documentary video from the Biomedical Engineering Clinical and Research Internship Program.

Another student, Justin Lo, also switched from a medical to a research focus by the end of that summer. He begins pursuing a doctorate at Duke University in September to study pre-cancerous cells’ interaction with light of as part of developing a light-based diagnostic test.

“The internship was the single most important experience that helped me decide what I wanted to do after graduation. It closed some doors and opened new ones,” Lo says. Other internships he considered didn’t immerse students in both research and medicine.

The Houston-based internship program is co-directed by Richards-Kortum and Dr. Michele Follen, director of the Center for Biomedical Engineering at The University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center. Students’ days start with classes on ethics, business and other relevant topics. The interns travel from nearby Rice dormitories to M. D. Anderson for those classes, which begin at 6:30 a.m.

A few days later, interns begin shadowing doctors, many of whom have won teaching awards, on mid-day rounds. A three-week course on human anatomy begins in the afternoons to complete the schedule for the first part of the program.

For the four-hour anatomy classes, interns shift between a lab with cadavers and a nearby classroom for discussions.

The dissection part can be daunting at first.

“It sounds so awkward. You’re picking somebody apart,” says Lundy. “But they donated their body for you to learn, so you take advantage of that, and you respect them and treat them with dignity in return.”

Research Professor Kathryn Peek uses decades of teaching experience to help interns master that approach. Among other steps, she has them pause during the first class to recognize the gift of the donated bodies, and cover the faces of cadavers during classes. 

After learning general anatomy, the interns select a body region or organ to dissect in detail over several days. Lundy’s and Steger’s groups focused on the heart, comparing notes about the triple bypass studied by Lundy’s group and the healthy heart of Steger’s group. Some stayed up all night to pull together the information they learned as part of making the most out of the internship.

Timothy Hsu used a specialized microscope to image cancer cells' response to an experimental drug in Dr. Michael Andreeff's lab at M. D. Anderson Cancer Center
Timothy Hsu used a specialized microscope to image
cancer cells’ response to an experimental drug in
Dr. Michael Andreeff’s lab at M. D. Anderson Cancer Center.

The groups then present their findings to classmates as part of their training.

“Leadership is a skill you have to develop for a program like this that asks you to balance a lot of demands, but it’s often not an explicit part of curricula,” Richards-Kortum notes.

Program faculty, many of whom are national experts in their fields, also make themselves available to participants on weekends and weeknights whenever possible, an approach Lo appreciated.

 “Dr. Richards-Kortum and Dr. Follen were helpful in giving advice and talking about how academia works,” he says. “They were great mentors.”

The mid-day clinical rotations involve several days in pediatrics, the emergency room and four other specialties that emphasize biomedical technology. For Lo, whose undergraduate focus was biomedical imaging, the experience was invaluable.

“Seeing something like an electrocardiogram machine in use—it’s totally different from the textbook,” he says.

The rotations that occur in many Houston hospitals also expose interns to traumatized patients, and to the financial aspects of seeking care. The experience intensifies during evenings and weekends, when many interns volunteer to visit emergency rooms.

Observing a doctor tell a family one night that a loved one was now a paraplegic convinced Lo not to become a doctor.

“I don’t know if I could do that,” he says.

Another time, he watched the frantic efforts as a motorcycle accident victim started to ‘code,’ with no heartbeat or breathing. “I found out that I like doctors and appreciate the work they do, but I wouldn’t want to be a doctor myself,” Lo says.

For Lundy, medicine’s emotional side and the thrill of watching surgeries had the reverse effect. Being baptized with blood from a nicked artery while watching his first surgery stands out in his memory. So does spending time in intensive care with a man whose young wife was not doing well.

Dr. Sally Awad explains to biomedical engineering students Adrian Freeberg and Carmen Rios how the emergency center at Memorial Hermann Hospital in Houston evaluates a car accident victim
Dr. Sally Awad explains to biomedical engineering students Adrian Freeberg and Carmen Rios how the emergency center at Memorial Hermann Hospital in Houston evaluates a car accident victim.

The man recounted his roller coaster experiences in the weeks since she fell into a coma after a car accident.

“The things he said shaped a lot of my views on how to be a doctor,” Lundy says. “Never forget that these patients are people, and never treat them with anything less than respect.”

Watching exams and surgeries also brought home biomedical technology’s importance. In one surgery, Lundy saw doctors save a man by inserting a synthetic, tube-shaped patch inside a blood vessel in his abdomen.

“You’re putting in a new material that fixes something, and that material has to be designed and tested, which is the kind of research I want to do,” Lundy says.

The clinical experiences provide the undergraduates with context for the research training that rounds out the internships. For some students, those six weeks of focused training are the best part.

Steger, who had never done research before, recalls her fascination with using magnetic resonance imaging to study nanomaterials as they heated up and killed tumor cells in laboratory animals.

She also got to visit the company that made the nanomaterials to see the production process. When her doctorate starts this fall, she has decided to focus on nanomaterials.

For many, though, the Clinical and Research Internship Program solidified what their chosen field is all about.

“When you start taking biomedical engineering classes,” Lo says, “you realize they’re pieces of a puzzle, and the material can get hard and the motivation might not be there to see what the big picture is. This summer program provides that big picture.”

BY Barbra Rodriguez

PHOTOS of Scott Lundy, Justin Lo
and Erika Zabre: Patrick Cummings

PHOTOS courtesy Biomedical Engineering Clinical
and Research Internship Program

DOCUMENTARY VIDEO produced
by Engineering Faculty Innovation Center

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  Updated 26 June 2006
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