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It's time to debunk common BME misconceptions

By JESSICA KASAMOTO | February 27, 2020

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I’ve decided that for this edition of STEM major survival guide, we’ll be doing some myth debunking on a topic that is quite near and dear to my heart: BME-ing. 

As essentially every person on this campus knows, BME, or Biomedical Engineering, is quite the thing here at Hopkins. But I do realize that to many who are far removed from all engineers and therefore non-native to the Clark Hall habitat, the BME species is quite the mystery. Are we really all snakes? Geniuses? Losers? A cult? 

Let’s examine these questions and debunk some myths, shall we?

Who are BMEs? Are they all pre-med? Pre-med snakes?

This is a question I primarily get from people outside the Hopkins bubble, but we’ll discuss it here anyway. BMEs are extremely diverse. In fact, I would dare to argue that BME is not a species, but a genus. 

There are many kinds of BMEs; we all ended up here for different reasons. Yes, there are many pre-meds. There are pre-meds who just so happen to have a passion for engineering. There are pre-meds who had no idea what biomedical engineering was but decided to BME anyway because it contained the word “bio” and the word “medical.” There are pre-meds who thought that biomedical engineering would look better on an application for medical school.  

No shade to any of those people; being pre-med and an engineer is extremely commendable in my mind, no matter what the original intention was. 

But there are also the people who chose BME because they saw their future in doing cool science-y tech stuff — genetic engineering, replacement organs, prosthetics, neural implants — the list goes on and on. There’s also people who came into BME unsure of their life choices and are still unsure of their life choices but stick with BME anyways because they aren’t sure what else they want to do (which is also okay; no shade here either, figuring out your life as a 20-some-year-old is rough). 

We all came here for different reasons. There are the aspiring CEOs of biotech startups, PhD hopefuls, people who dream of working for Medtronic and Johnson & Johnson, BME and Computer Science double majors who are headed straight to Silicon Valley after graduation, the list goes on and on. 

So no — not all pre-med, not even close. Now onto the snakey part...

BME is overly competitive and they all hate each other.

At least from my experience, BME is competitive, but it’s also extremely collaborative. 

It’s competitive in the way that everyone is extremely smart and working hard to do well (which is reflected, in my opinion, in some annoyingly high midterm averages for difficult exams). 

Unless you’re extremely smart, chances are, if you’re not studying you may end up disappointed. But, compared with my colleagues in other majors, BMEs also tend to be a lot more collaborative than the other majors: We do our homework together, we study for our exams together, we write code at four in the morning on A-level together. 

Going back to the whole species/genus theme — we form symbiotic relationships with our classmates because we rely on each other to do well. This often leads to the best friendships, because nothing (and I mean nothing) lends itself to bonding more than crying over problem sets and fixing each other’s codes during ungodly hours of the morning. I’ve seen very little of that cutthroat-sabatoge-your-friends mentality that I feel like people expect.  

We love to hate doing work together, that’s why we are so close.

BME is harder than other majors and we’re smarter.

BME classes are objectively challenging; that’s quite hard to deny, even by the professors and the graduate students who teach/TA our classes. 

In my opinion, the most challenging part of BME is that most of our exams (like most other engineering exams) are not memorization based — if you don’t understand what’s going on and then some, you most likely will be taking the L. 

A lot of the upper-level classes are on biotech topics that really haven’t even been written into textbooks yet; it can be hard to find good help through online sources. Often times, at least for me and my friends, office hours are a must. 

So yes, BME is hard, but in all honesty, comparison to other majors (particularly non-engineering) is unfair. 

Don’t compare apples to oranges, snakes to animals that aren’t snakes. What even is hard? Coding a prediction algorithm in Python? Writing a 10-page paper on Heidegger’s theory of time? Memorizing every detail on every slide in every neuro lecture? Spending four hours in the lab for PEBL? 

A lot of us would much rather take that non-memorization-based exam and code those prediction algorithms than any of those other things. Trust me. Don’t put others on a pedestal. Don’t judge or compare — it’s bad for the soul.

We’re trained in everything and specialized in nothing.

This one probably has the most truth to it — the core curriculum consists of bio, electrical engineering and control theory, data science, neuroscience, systems biology, thermodynamics — our classes spread far and wide. 

Some may view this as a bad thing, but in all honesty I’ve enjoyed broadening my background and learning a lot about different subjects; I think it’s good for all of us to be well-rounded. 

Choosing your focus area gives you some path and aim at specialization, but truth be told, if you’re not specifically aiming to take all interrelated courses, the focus areas are also so broad that it can still feel like you’re taking a ton of unrelated classes. 

For me, I plan on gaining greater specialization in a graduate school program with a more specific curriculum, so I think the diversity of the BME program hasn’t been an issue. But yeah, I could definitely see how some may have issues with the broadness of the field and in this specific program here, but it is what it is.

We hate our lives and regret Hopkins.

Life is what you make of it. I know BMEs who are extremely passionate about this major and (almost annoyingly) know exactly what they want to do in their life because of it. I know BMEs who actually hate this major; I know people who transferred universities because they hated it so much. I know BMEs who constantly joke about hating this major but deep down wouldn’t want to be doing anything else. I know people who are probably actually indifferent. 

Again, we’re all different; we all do differently with what we’re given — some of us are a lot more positive than others. Life can be rough, but I wouldn’t say that we’re miserable all the time; in fact, most people will admit that 4 a.m. problem sets with your best friends can honestly be somewhat enjoyable. 

So, on that note — as a general species (or genus), we’re not all that bad. Maybe a little high-strung and stressed, but generally somewhat normal human beings — don’t trust what you read on meme pages; it’s bad for the soul.

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