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A Path for Post-Grad Success

An industry-focused BME Design Fellowship prepares students for jobs after graduation

At the end of each academic year, Marc Sommer, the director of undergraduate studies, and Elizabeth (Libby) Bucholz, the associate director of undergraduate studies, organize a town hall for graduating seniors from Duke University’s Department of Biomedical Engineering. Over soda and pizza, students are encouraged to discuss their experiences in the BME program––both good and bad––with their advisors and peers. The town hall is one of the last events students attend during their undergraduate career, and Bucholz and Sommer aim to use their feedback to determine how the department can evolve to best serve the needs of the students. 

While the discussions cover a range of topics, one constant point has emerged over the years: students want a program tailored toward industry experience.

“It was clear that seniors who wanted to go to medical school or graduate school felt adequately prepared after graduation, but there was a large group of students who wanted to go into industry, and they didn’t feel like they had all the skills they needed to be competitive job candidates,” says Bucholz. “We didn’t think that was acceptable, so we quickly started planning for ways to address the problem.” 

The result, launched in fall 2017, is the BME Design Fellows pathway—an intensive design program expressly for BME juniors interested in jobs in industry after graduation. Modeled after Duke Engineering’s successful Pratt Undergraduate Research Fellows program, the BME Design Fellows program spans three semesters and includes a guaranteed summer internship at a biotech company in nearby Research Triangle Park or at Duke University Medical Center. 

“Students who are interested in medical school or graduate school will often enroll in the Pratt Research Fellows for intensive research experience, but there wasn’t an equivalent for students who would be applying for jobs,” says professor of the practice Mark Palmeri. “The BME Design Fellows program allows us to fill that gap. If students are looking to diversify their engineering skillset and build up their resume, this new option tees them up nicely.”

In fact, students in the BME Design Fellows program graduate with nearly two solid years of design experience. They start in the spring of junior year with a design fundamentals course taught by Duke BME’s Kevin Caves. During the summer they work at their chosen internship for at least 10 weeks, followed by a two-semester design course of their choosing senior year.

While students in Duke BME’s Master of Engineering program are required to complete an internship to earn their degree, the BME Design Fellows is the first program that provides undergraduate students with a similar opportunity. In addition to gaining practical work experience, they learn how to prepare and go through the technical interview process. 

“I had students come to me saying they felt like they didn’t know anything and weren’t sure what they could say during an interview, and they learned that it wasn’t an accurate perception because the companies were very excited to hire them,” says Bucholz. “The first class of Design Fellows got valuable first-hand interview experience, and they selected internships at local companies like MicroElastic or Blur that really excited them.”

Now, with the first class of 13 design fellows entering their senior year, Bucholz and Palmeri hope the program grows to allow for an even stronger immersive design experience. As more students participate, they also aim to create a strong community of fellows that can act as a professional network as graduates enter the workplace. 

“The BME Design Fellows program has given us the experience we need to be successful in graduate school, industry, and starting our own companies,” says Deepthi Nacharaju, a student in the first cohort of design fellows. “We not only gain essential skills, but also a great network in each other and with industry professionals. All of these opportunities made me really interested in applying for this program, and I’m excited to welcome a new cohort of students as the program continues this year.”