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A crash course in the life of a biomedical engineer

September 15, 2022
Two students are holding up and examining a pipette.

Two days into a four-week immersive pre-college experience at Johns Hopkins this past July, one of the high school participants remarked that a specific cell therapy used to treat cancer could have implications for HIV treatment. Jess Dunleavey, a lecturer in the Johns Hopkins Department of Biomedical Engineering, reacted in awe.

“I just watched a 16-year-old make a scientific connection that I’ve observed graduate students not create,” Dunleavey said. “The fact that we have students here doing that, and that’s who we brought in…I’m loving having those students here.”

The Immersive Summer Program for Education, Enrichment, and Distinction in Biomedical Engineering, or ISPEED, aims to provide a hands-on experience for exceptional high school students who are from backgrounds underrepresented in science and technology fields. The program focuses on three key areas: life sciences, quantitative sciences, and health care design—each of which are areas of focus of the Johns Hopkins Department of Biomedical Engineering, which sponsors the program. The summer experience provides an insider’s look at what it’s like to be a biomedical engineer working in the nation’s top-ranked biomedical engineering department.

The program is fully funded for participants to reduce the barriers for their attendance in the hopes of making it an accessible option for students from any background. This year’s cohort included first generation and low-income students, students from underrepresented communities, and underserved populations from across the country, with about 50% coming from Baltimore or Washington, D.C.

In addition to the academic offerings of the program, ISPEED also offers student participants mentorship, financial aid advising, and guidance on curating a college application. Michael I. Miller, a professor and director of the Department of Biomedical Engineering, said the program aims to build connections between prospective college students and STEM programs in order to increase the diversity of incoming classes.

“Inclusive excellence is one of the core values of Hopkins BME,” Miller said. “As engineers, we are creators, we are disruptors, and we are innovators who are engineering the future of medicine. It is vital that we have people with different perspectives and lived experiences in our laboratories and in our classrooms so we can continue to create health care solutions and new ways of thinking about our world.”

The program is unique in its project-based curriculum. Students are taught the fundamentals of design thinking to solve problems the way engineers do. The program’s first year curriculum focuses on finding health care solutions related to cardiovascular systems—bringing together the biology, quantitative coding, and design thinking to solve problems. In the first week of this summer’s cohort, students took their own EKGs, and later wrote code to predict the heart rate beat per minute from their individual EKGs, while also learning about treatments for hypertension. Dunleavey led a series of wet labs for the program, where students looked at living cells and took multicolor fluorescence microscopy images of the cells—all with the goal of immersing the students in the Hopkins BME world.

Students and a professor are working side-by-side in the lab.

“Before this, I didn’t have a good idea of what it would look like to work in biomedical engineering,” said Cadence Cherot, a junior at Bryn Mawr School. “But more than just learning about the field, I learned what it would mean for me to become a biomedical engineer.”

For Benjamin Gibson, a junior at Boy’s Latin School of Maryland, the ISPEED program helped bridge gaps in his high school academic experience caused by the pandemic.

“My first year of high school, I wasn’t allowed in a lab at all because of COVID, and this past year, our lab time was fairly minimal,” Gibson said. “I wasn’t really expecting how much enjoyment I would get out of the wet lab experience.”

The biology programming provided students the chance to work with contracting cardiomyocytes and compounds that influence cardiac contractions, researching their viability for different types of treatment. In the coding programming, students received a “crash course” in Python to learn about the quantitative side of biomedical engineering. By the end of the program, they were able to create computer code that could be used in clinical settings. For the design aspect of the program, the students learned the design process, asking questions to address the root of the problem and using the biological and computational concepts they learned in their lessons to narrow down solutions.

Anannya Trehan, a junior at Montgomery Blair High School, was part of group developing a blood pressure monitor designed to be highly accurate but affordable for consumers.

“We won’t make a full product, but we are prototyping, and I think it’s really interesting because I haven’t done a project on such a large scale before,” she said. “It feels professional, walking through the design process, ideation, and prototyping. It feels like a peek into what biomedical professionals do.”

Program directors, faculty, postdoctoral researchers, and graduate and undergraduate students came together to help with the program. The graduate and undergraduate students shared their interest in BME, their potential career paths, and how they chose Hopkins, providing insight on the support they received and advising participants on the college application process. With the help of Thread, a Baltimore organization that provides mentorship and support for high school students and young adults, the program directors provided opportunities for the cohort to connect and ensured the teaching assistants were providing helpful mentorship—not only for the duration of the program, but also to maintain a relationship with the students following the program.

“The folks that we’ve brought in are awesome and excited to be helping,” Dunleavey says. “I have had multiple conversations with them so far where they’re like, ‘These kids are brilliant.’ I think they’re really excited to show them what college can be.”

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