Final Summer Thoughts: What is bioengineering, anyway?

Many people asked me at the beginning of the summer if I was a bioengineer and in response, I would say no. Two months later, I’m at the end of my first experience in a real-world medical technologies company, but I still find myself occasionally Googling phrases like What do bioengineers do? My goal for this summer internship was to get an idea of what bioengineering entails in an industry setting and to gain experience working at a MedTech company.

At Establishment Labs, I felt so lucky to have a supervisor who let me have such an integral role in the design process of the device. My job was essentially to write the required design criteria for our device so that as the device underwent changes over time, the written criteria could be referenced to ensure the device still fit its intended purpose. In addition, I developed risk assessment FMEAs, helped build a soon-to-be-working prototype, and planned what the final device would consist of, including choosing parts and contacting manufacturers. Establishment Labs is a relatively small company (~200 employees) all in the same campus, so communicating between departments is as easy as sending a Skype message or walking up to someone’s desk. The coolest part about working in R&D is that I had a taste of many different roles in the industry, including:

  • Regulatory: learned about standards, wrote design specifications, researched materials and parts that adhere to specific certifications.
  • Technical design: collaborated with the technical designer to design the case of our device, practiced using Solidworks, 3D printing.
  • Electrical engineering: worked with the electrical engineer discussing the limitations and capabilities of the PCB and understanding how the device works, researched parts for prototype and final device.
  • Clinical: helped interview doctors and nurses about what they liked and disliked about our design’s user interface and functionality.
  • Process engineering: while working on the final prototype plans, I had to consider: How, how easily, and where will our device be assembled? Where will the parts come from?
  • Graphic design: made powerpoints showing concept designs, wrote an instruction manual.

I still feel like I don’t know what it means to be a bioengineer, but after asking around, apparently nobody really does. Maybe I’ll know the answer when I finish this program in May. But at the moment, it’s not something that concerns me. Why? Because I established a few facts about myself. Based on my experiences from the June short course and spending two blissful months in R&D, I reinforced my belief that creativity is my strongest trait. My favorite tasks were those involving brainstorming, critically analyzing solutions, and designing. I know that whatever career I ended up in, it had to involve 1. healthcare and 2. some form of design.

As mentioned (ad nauseum) before, I studied biochemistry as an undergrad. A recurring worry for me since even before beginning this program was that I wouldn’t have the skills or knowledge needed to handle the internship. Even with my professors and former GMI-ers reassuring me that I’d be ok, I thought I’d ride the Imposter Syndrome rollercoaster all summer. I’m going to make a bold statement: any project in bioengineering will involve biochemistry at its foundation. Thus, by enjoying the science behind bioengineering and wanting to create applications with said science, I can rest easy and say confidently that I’m heading in the right direction.

Drew, Juan José Chacón (CEO, Establishment Labs), and me


Three lasting impressions for the last three days:

  • Hacienda Alsacia Starbucks coffee tour: On Sunday, Theresa and I traveled to beautiful, mountainous Alajuela to visit Starbucks’ first and only coffee farm. This tour definitely changed my view of coffee and reminded me of the importance of knowing where your food comes from. From the immigrants who come seasonally to harvest coffee cherries by the backbreaking crateload, to the multi-step drying process and roasting, coffee beans are exchanged between so many hands before finally ending up in your cup.
  • Speaking Spanish: Explaining and teaching is the best way to prove that you understand a concept, but the true test of understanding is explaining what you just learned in English to someone else in Spanish. The technical designer and I made a bet that I wasn’t allowed to talk to her in English anymore, so every task I presented to her had to be done in Spanish. I appreciate her challenge so much because my most valuable and productive Spanish practice happened during our interactions.
  • New friends: The best part of traveling is meeting new people, as fleeting and bittersweet as it is. Social media eases the pain of saying goodbye. It’s a small world, after all.
    • Short course friends: Thanks for helping me practice Spanish and providing me with tons of recommendations for weekend plans. Our time together was brief but so much fun, and I wish we had gotten to hang out more.
    • Establishment Lab coworkers: RDI office, you are some of the funniest, most expressive, and welcoming group of people that I have ever met. Thank you for letting Drew and me invade your office space, for your invaluable advice and guidance, and for being so kind to us.
    • GMI cohort: Living in an aparthotel for two months with ten people that I met at the end of May… It’s been an honor getting to know you this summer and I can’t wait to see what crazy feats we’ll accomplish this year.

BONUS: Week 9 Exotic Fruit Bingo: Pitaya (dragonfruit): Did you know that the dragon fruit plant is a succulent? That in combination with its popular use in jazzing up smoothie bowls basically makes it the most #basic fruit ever. This attractive fruit has a waxy pink outside with soft green scales (for lack of a better word) and a fleshy interior spotted with small black seeds, like a very disorganized kiwi. The inside is commonly either white or deep pink. Its flavor was disappointingly mild and semisweet for such a vivid fruit.


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