Real Life Connections: The Respective Journeys of Two Actalent Engineers in the Medical Device Industry

Karishma Patel and Alex Watson recount how, and why, they became engineers and the benefits of working in the medical device industry.

Karishma Patel has seen the real-life connection between her work and something bigger. It happened while she was talking to a family friend who’d undergone successful knee replacement surgery.

Alex Watson has seen the bigger connection in his work, too. He made the realisation in a maternity unit.

Alex is an electrical engineer (B.S. Electrical Engineering, North Carolina State University, 2016; M.S. Electrical Engineering, North Carolina State, 2017).

Karishma is a biomedical engineer (B.S. Chemistry and Biochemistry, Montclair State University - 2010; M.S. Biomedical Engineering, New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) - 2013).

Both have devoted their careers to innovating and improving medical devices. They help engineer products like orthopedic implants, diagnostic equipment, and surgical tools. But that's only naming a few.

Today, Karishma and Alex lead their own project teams at Actalent. They, and the engineers they oversee, are sought after to design, develop, test, and enhance medical devices for companies from all over the world.

In this article, Karishma and Alex will recount aspects of their respective journeys into the world of medical devices. They'll also share insights they've gained along the way.

As a bonus, Dr. Angelika Niemz from the Keck Graduate Institute in Claremont, California, offers an educator’s perspective on the different opportunities and trends in medical device engineering.

Becoming a Medical Device Engineer

How Karishma and Alex Have Impacted Their World

Karishma, while talking to that family friend, discovered she was more involved in the friend's surgery than either of them had realised. Turns out Karishma not only performed quality engineering on the knee implant, but she'd also worked on the robotic arm used to surgically attach it. Karishma even knew the surgeon that performed the operation.

"She still gets so excited to talk about her surgery every time she sees me," said Karishma of the family friend. "She is so happy and fascinated that I worked on both those products. She tells everyone how much better she feels after having the surgery and that I was a part of it. That's a really good feeling."

What Alex saw in the maternity unit was a prenatal bed used in deliveries. He'd spent several months testing and debugging a circuit board that computes and sends signals to the bed’s electrical components, much like the central nervous system sends messages to the body. But he hadn’t fully grasped, until seeing the finished product in the hospital, that he’d done more than just work on a piece of hardware.

"When I saw the whole system in the hospital," Alex said, "I thought about there being a little circuit board in there that was essential to this entire thing working. Then I thought about how I had a hand in that. And that, to me, was crazy."

That moment, Alex said, and others like it, remind him to look up from his work, see the bigger picture, and find meaning in it.

"Understandably, it's easy to get bogged down in the details and say to yourself, 'I'm only working on a circuit board,'" he said. "But that one little thing that you’re doing is a piece to a bigger system. And that system is going to change multiple people’s lives, presumably. You might not always get the chance to see it, but you know it’s there.”

Alex has worked on a wide range of products already: from the irrigator used in brain surgeries, to the tuberculosis diagnostic system, to the device that generates radio frequencies as a form of treatment (that one, he said, might be his favorite). And, of course, there's the prenatal bed.

"When you do come across one in the wild," he said, "it hits you in a different way."

Why Karishma and Alex Became Engineers

Growing up, Karishma was fascinated with chemistry, physics, math, and medicine. She also watched her father struggle with chronic back pain. His problem, and her academic curiosity, inspired her to look for answers in science and engineering.

"When I heard my dad complain about his back pain, I told myself, ‘I want to do something that makes an impact in someone else's life," Karishma said. "I knew, internally, I wanted to do something in the medical field as well as engineering. I knew I wanted to combine them."

For Alex, the first steps of his journey were motivated by a pragmatism, rooted in the desire to make things he could see and touch. He was also looking for a challenge.

"It wasn't quite a fairy tale story. I wasn't the stereotypical engineer type," he said. "I wasn't creating new buildings with Legos, and I wasn't coding in my room. I wasn't doing anything like that. I was just really good at math, and I enjoyed physics and calculus. I also wanted a career where it would keep me on my toes, where I would actually get a chance to build something tangible. So, engineering made sense."

Why People Choose the Medical Device Industry: Many Paths and Possibilities

Scientists and engineers find their way into the medical device industry any number of ways. Where they can go from there also varies widely. To the layperson writing this story, the possibilities feel endless.

"Your career path depends on the skills and the knowledge that you learn coming into the industry," said Dr. Angelika Niemz, an Associate Dean and Professor at the Keck Graduate Institute. She's a subject matter expert in medical diagnostics and devices, with a particular focus on the in vitro diagnostics industry and point of care molecular diagnostics for infectious diseases. For the last twenty years she's taught at KGI, including courses in KGI's Master of Science in Medical Device Engineering program.

"My PhD, interestingly enough, is in chemistry," said Dr. Niemz. "My PhD advisor was an organic chemist and then I decided I don't like organic chemistry."

With organic chemistry out, Dr. Niemz completed a post-doctoral fellowship in chemical engineering at Cal Tech.

"I found out that I like building instruments," she said. "I like biomolecules and analysing things. And little did I know that's exactly what you do in the in vitro diagnostics industry. You have assay, you have hardware, and then you have electronics and software. So, I kind of slid into this from left field."

And that's the beauty of the medical device industry; whether they arrive as engineers or scientists – or both -- a person can carve out a career path working in one area or many: it’s vast. They could become specialists by product type (i.e. devices, instruments, diagnostics, etc.). Or they could go super-niche by product sub-type (implants, wearables, robotics, in vitro diagnostics, etc.). Maybe they just want to focus their career on one or more of the phases a medical device goes through to reach and stay on the market: research and development, production, regulatory compliance, quality assurance, or project management. A person could choose to work more on the science side or the engineering side of the industry, depending on their preference. Or they could do both, like biomedical engineers. Or, like Dr. Niemz, they could become a systems engineer, someone who integrates everything: the science, the engineering, the products, and all their phases.

"If you're interested in exploring other areas, I think the medical device industry really is giving you an opportunity to branch out and advance your career," she said. "But again, it depends on what it is you want do."

How Alex Discovered His Career Path

Alex grew up in North Carolina. He started college at the University of Texas-Austin, his dream school. He initially wanted to be an aerospace engineer. Due to out-of-state tuition costs, however, plans changed freshman year. He joined the Air Force ROTC to access more aid and scholarships. Those scholarships required him to major in electrical engineering instead of aerospace. The switch, not without some initial discomfort, would prove fortuitous.

"The professor started the (electrical engineering) class by saying he assumed everyone had taken AP physics. My high school did not have an AP Physics class," he said. "So, I was fighting from the start to catch up with everyone else, but I really enjoyed what I was learning. It was very math heavy with a lot of analysis."

Suddenly, Alex was intrigued by the intangible aspects of engineering, too.

"The interesting thing about electrical engineering, as opposed to other engineering disciplines, is you're basically working with something you can't see," he said. "You're working with electrons, and you're trusting the theory, and you're seeing it either work or literally go up in smoke. That was fun and exciting."

He transferred closer to home sophomore year, enrolling at North Carolina State in 2012. There were practical and logistical reasons why. The most important reason being his girlfriend, now wife, was there. But he didn't leave Texas empty handed. He had a newfound career passion: electrical engineering.

"I stuck with electrical engineering because it provided a lot of challenging problems," he said, "and because, quite frankly, there's so much demand for electrical engineers."

By now Alex was learning that some engineering disciplines limited where you could live depending on the industry. Especially if the work was concentrated in specific cities or regions. He discovered, by contrast, that electrical engineering was among the more flexible: he could essentially work anywhere. His career view, with flexibility and security among his priorities, was also coming into sharper focus: Analog Electronics.

"I became fascinated by the analog stuff," he said. "Analog was becoming kind of niche because a lot of people were focusing on digital. So, I wanted to differentiate myself."

At the end of his junior year, Alex landed an internship with an engineering services company in Raleigh, NC. He'd also been studying radio frequency design, too.

"The first few projects that I was worked on were running tests on medical device products," he explained. "I was assigned an independent project to design and build an EKG amplifier."

On that project Alex met someone who would not only help him build that EKG circuit board, but also shape the way he thought and approached engineering problems.

"I had a mentor there, and he was the smartest person I've ever worked with," he said. "He was only four or five years older than me, but I swear he's still the smartest guy I've ever met. He was instrumental in coaching me through, asking questions like, "Hey, did you go through this, did you go through that? Have you thought of this? Have you thought of that?" With his help, I actually created that circuit board. And nothing went up in smoke and everything functioned as you would expect it to."

That experience, Alex said, "solidified" his career direction: the medical device industry.

In 2016, Alex graduated with a Bachelor's in Electrical Engineering and that internship became his first full-time job as an engineer. He spent the next three years working on medical devices for that same company. By 2017 he'd earned his master's in Electrical Engineering from NC State on the side.

How Karishma Discovered Her Career Path

Biomedical engineering (BME) is engineering applied to medicine and biology for healthcare purposes.

Karishma was introduced to BME in 2009 while assisting on research projects as an undergraduate majoring in both biochemistry and chemistry at Montclair State University.

"Bio-med was fascinating because it mixed biology, the medical field, and engineering," she said, a combination of her favorite subjects in one discipline.

From there she immersed herself in the technology and the trends. Then she started meeting biomedical engineers who were solving actual problems in medicine. Research and real life were converging right in front of her.

"I saw how the biomedical engineering field and the biotech industry were helping patients and making a difference in people's lives," she said. "I was seeing first-hand how the industry was this amasing mix of engineering and science, and all these other disciplines, and how, through research and innovation, it was giving back to the community in its own special way."

The research inspired her to pursue a master's degree in BME. After extensive vetting and some deliberation, she chose New Jersey Institute of Technology over Cornell University. The deciding factor: NJIT allowed her to take graduate courses part-time so she could work as an engineer full-time.

"I wanted real life experience," she said. "After so much focus on studying there was an eagerness to move on to the next chapter of my life. I had this desire to make an impact. I wanted to learn how the industry works and find out if, and how, I could use the education I obtained. NJIT was the perfect fit for me. It allowed me to gain industry experience and keep pursuing my education. It was a great program."

Upon graduating from Montclair State in 2010, she'd already lined-up a job as a quality engineer in the consumer division of a large medical products corporation in New Jersey. For the next three years she worked there during the day and studied bio-medical engineering (BME) at night.

"I learned that BME is a huge field," she said. "Entering NJIT I thought it was only just one or two areas." As she took more courses, Karishma learned about medical devices, instrumentation (think EKGs), and bioengineering, which is engineering applied to biological systems, and not just for medicine. "I realised that in the future I didn't have to be limited to one field. This discipline opened doors to many areas, many different concentrations, and many opportunities."

Beyond the science and engineering, Karishma also began to learn the regulatory, business, and project management aspects of the medical device industry. This holistic approach included understanding the multi-faceted and complex route that products must take – especially those that pose the highest risk for patients – as they go from idea to market, if they make it that far.

"The professor made us feel like we were working in the industry, like we were part of a real-life scenario," Karishma said. "He put us in teams of five and gave us a project. One person picked the regulatory part, one person picked marketing, another handled quality, and so on. As a team, we had to come together to understand the entire process of how you take a medical device from bench to commercialisation. That was a very interesting and valuable experience. It turned my attention toward medical devices, specifically orthopedics."

As it happens, one of the leading makers of orthopedic implants – hip, knee, and shoulder replacements, among other products – was headquartered in New Jersey. Some of her fellow BME graduate students at NJIT already worked there. After learning as much as she could about the company, Karishma thought it would be a good fit. And, by the time she graduated from NJIT in May 2013, she was working there too, as a quality engineer.

"Everything was going as I planned it,” she said. "And I really believe it was because of the urge – the urge to learn, research, and advance, and asking myself, 'what do I want to do and where do I want to go next?' And then making sure I was talking to the right faculty, professors, friends, classmates… people with the right knowledge that could help me develop a clear picture to achieve my goals."

How Colleges and Universities Are Giving Students More Industry Experience

At educational institutions, Dr. Niemz said, students are both the customers and the product.

“And so,” she says, “our product has to be able to perform within the industry.”

Most skilled job posting in the medical device industry (and many others), however, require 5-10 years of experience. If students are entering the professional workforce for the first time, that creates “a little bit of a chicken and egg type situation,” Dr. Niemz said.

That’s why programs like KGI’s Medical Device Engineering masters and NJIT’s Biomedical Engineering masters work closely with the industry to design curriculum that gives students a big dose of that experience up front.

“Our students also have a lot of interaction with the industry,” said Dr. Niemz, speaking of KGI. “They do an internship between the first and second year so that they actually get industry exposure and experience. In their second year they do a team-based capstone project that is sponsored by industry. Companies will actually come to KGI, and pay KGI, to have our students solve a specific problem. The students work together in a team to address the issue. So effectively they gain industry experience. Which is then great because they can put that on their resume and then that opens up doors later on when they’re trying to land a job."

KGI relies on an advisory board to help inform and align the school with the direction and the needs of the industry.

"I think it's imperative for educational institutions to actually get input from industry,” she said, "to make sure that what we're covering and the key points that our students are learning is actually what is necessary” in the real world.

The goal is also to add value to each student’s education by giving them an opportunity to build upon, or branch beyond, the science or engineering foundation they arrived with.

"We are providing students with a holistic educational experience,” said Dr. Niemz. “We have the fundamental science and engineering curriculum, but in addition our students also take regulatory courses, operations courses, business, ethics, and a variety of other courses.”

Where Alex’s Career Path Led

After working with medical devices for nearly three years, Alex briefly left the industry in March 2019 to join a company that designed and manufactured commercial lighting products.

“I wanted to see what it was like on the other side of the fence,” he said.

But leaving only re-enforced his preference to work with medical devices. So, in February 2020, he came back, joining Actalent as a design engineer consultant. And, just like when he made the switch from aerospace to electrical engineering as a freshman, it again proved fortuitous.

“Within a year of me leaving that industrial lighting company, they closed the location that I had been working in, due in no small part to COVID-19,” he said. “So many businesses didn’t need commercial space anymore, and that hit them hard.”

What distinguishes the medical device industry, Alex said, in addition to its security, is the flexibility.

“If suddenly I woke up one morning and decided I really want to move to Austin, or the west coast, or move north or further south, you name it, there's opportunity,” Alex said. “There's just so much competition. There's so much demand, so much growth.”

There are also possibilities yet imagined: “Until we find a way to make humans live forever and perfectly, there's always going to be a need for medical devices,” Alex said, “and there's always going to be so much innovation.”

After thirteen months at Actalent, Alex was promoted to a project lead. Once a consultant himself, he now oversees them. Recently his team designed circuit boards for a company that makes testing products used to detect brain disorders. Now they’re working on something entirely different: finding ways to upgrade medical devices before their existing components and technology become obsolete. It’s a subject he’s very familiar with (somewhat painfully).

“The first major project I worked on coming out of college was an obsolescence project,” Alex said. He added with a laugh that it may have scarred him a bit. “I was the only electrical engineer on the project, and I was kind of thrown out there to figure it out. On the one hand, I’m extremely thankful because I learned a lot, but it was a classic cliché of learning-by-failure situation. But it also laid the groundwork for understanding how to approach these projects.”

He expects obsolescence challenges will persist into the future as companies work around chip shortages and struggle to find components.

“With the chip shortage issue that we're in right now,” he said, “I think that's going to continue to be a problem and there's going to be a lot of people scrambling to keep their medical systems manufacturable as everyone tries to find solutions to the shortage.”

So, what was the key lesson Alex learned from that first experience solving an obsolescence problem?

“First and foremost, you need to have as many contacts as possible for people at the company who know the product’s design. You also need all the documentation you can get to understand the product’s entire system,” he explained. “You have to put in a lot of time up front to understand the system that you’re going to be re-designing, because if you just look at one schematic and say ‘we found a solution’ without looking at how your change could affect the entire system, you could get totally blasted at the end of a project because there’s some requirement that’s related to some other requirement that you didn’t know about. So, a ton of up-front work has to be done to grasp the system in order to provide an accurate estimate of what the work will be.”

Whether it was changing majors, changing schools, changing industries, or struggling on his first obsolescence project, Alex has come to value what he learns from adversity, change, and experience. It’s all helped him to understand and trust his process.

“I'm not normally the person who steps up and knocks something out of the park the first go around,” he said. “I'm the person who learns from that first go around and then does not make the same mistakes the second time around.”

For him failure, when viewed and resolved the right way, is the roadmap to innovation.

“Innovation requires testing boundaries that people have not gone beyond or have not come particularly close to,” Alex said. “So you have to bang on the walls a bit to find out what the rules are. You'll fail in ways that you wouldn't expect yourself to -- where you're questioning your own intelligence. There's a reason there are not a lot of engineers in the world. It's a difficult profession. You have to learn to roll with your failures, accept them and move on to the next thing. It’s just part of it. Because if you're not running into the potential for failure, you're not innovating. Fail early, fail often, so that what you end up creating and producing has taken all those failures into account.”

Where Karishma’s Career Path Led

By 2016, Karishma was ready to diversify her professional experience within the medical device industry. She was also getting married. Her then fiancé, now husband, was living in Florida. She was still in New Jersey. Her company, however, had recently acquired a robotics division near Ft. Lauderdale.

“I looked into it and thought to myself: Robotics is the thing right now,” she said. “It’s a big thing.”

She approached her manager about a transfer. The timing was perfect: her company was looking to fill roles in the robotics division from within. And, so it goes, Karishma’s streak of finding and seizing the right opportunities would continue.

“Being a senior quality engineer in the robotics division for three years gave me the chance to learn all about the robotic arm, and how it’s used to perform knee implant and hip implant surgeries,” she said. “It’s really one big, very complex product. There are so many parts, so many components that go into it. I learned about all of them, too. I learned how everything was assembled, what the software issues were, and what the hardware issues were. I essentially learned how the whole product works, as well as its risks.”

Part of her job involved implementing quality systems and process improvements. She also became immersed in her company’s supply chain ecosystem.

“Because there were so many parts involved there were many different suppliers,” she said. “I learned about all of them. And, as a quality engineer, I learned how to build relationships with their quality engineers. Working together, we would figure out how to help each other make great products.”

In 2019, Karishma shifted her focus again. This time to the biological side of BME. She took a quality engineering role with a company in south Florida that makes medical and clinical testing products.

“I wanted to gain more experience in that part of the industry. And this role looked interesting to me. Not only the role, but also the products they made. I liked the company culture, too,” said Karishma. “That was where I wanted to take my career.”

Because this was a considerably smaller company compared to her previous employers, Karishma, out of necessity, was building up cross-functional skills and experience in all different parts of the business.

“Supporting the quality systems, I touched so many aspects of the operation because it was a small manufacturing plant,” she explained. “I was touching a lot of different areas and that’s what I wanted. Sometimes at a bigger company you only focus on one thing. At a smaller facility I got to work on not just quality systems but also product complaints, regulatory compliance, and production. I also had the chance to mentor new and junior engineers, which was interesting for me and for them. I wore many hats.”

Then, in April 2020, another life-changing milestone: Karishma became a mom. Weighing pandemic uncertainty and the desire to be home with her baby daughter, she stepped away from work for eighteen-months.

"It was just a personal decision my husband and I made that we thought was important," she said. "We wanted to be safe, but I wanted to spend time with my baby girl, my family. So, I actually took the time to do that."

Karishma continued to study industry trends. She also completed a 6-week internship focused on project management. There’d be no lag when she was ready to return. There’d also be no rush to take a role unless it was the right fit.

“After about a year I felt ready to return to the workforce,” she said. "I slowly started looking at what was out there. Now that I had a baby, I wanted to see what roles would suit me best."

More than ever, having the flexibility to balance her home and work life would be crucial.

Enter Actalent:

"Around March of 2021 Laura Fashinpaur from Actalent contacted me," Karishma remembers. "We talked about my experience and the type of roles I was looking for, and right away she had several opportunities she thought would be great for me."

Karishma was hoping for a part-time role to start, but there weren’t any available. “Laura told me, ‘We think you have great experience and would love to have you join us. When you’re ready for full-time, let me know.’”

After giving it some thought, Karishma reached out to Laura again in July 2021. She was ready.

Actalent quickly found her an ideal role on a supplier harmonisation project. It involved standardising and verifying quality processes of all vendors -- much like her prior robotics job. And it was remote. Laura set up the interview with the client. It went great. Karishma had a good feeling about Actalent and the client. That, she said, was because of Laura.

“I left the interview feeling like this would be a great company to work for. That’s because of the feeling I got from Laura,” said Karishma. “It was just great, positive energy from her.”

After six months on the harmonisation project as a consultant, Karishma was in for another surprise. Actalent asked if she would be a team leader within their engineering services group. She’d go from being a consultant to managing them as an internal Actalent employee.

“This was a chance to guide a team, learn from a team, and develop more skills and skills as a leader. As part of my career development, that is something I wanted,” she said. “I said yes, definitely.”

Karishma never anticipated getting this job, or any of the others she wanted and got through the years. It just kept happening.

“What I do know is that I had a belief,” she said, “and I always knew that if I try it will work.”

Looking back on her career so far, she sees parts of herself in the consultants she oversees. Making an impact on their careers is one of the most rewarding parts of being a leader.

“Everyone is different. Everyone has a different path,” she said. “They all have different questions. This role gives me the opportunity to listen to them and support them. I learn from them. I learn when I don’t know the answers. But it’s great to find those answers. I want to find those answers. It requires a lot of effort and can be time consuming, but it makes an impact.”

The Medical Device Industry: A Glimpse of The Future

Medical technology, especially diagnostics, are not only advancing, but also becoming more familiar and accessible to the public, said Dr. Niemz. She cited the proliferation of rapid tests and testing stations during the pandemic as one of the prime examples, and catalysts, of this “democratisation.”

“One of the things that we've really seen is the democratising of medical diagnostics,” said Dr. Niemz, “Which is to say, we’re moving things out of a central lab towards the point of care.”

Genomics is among the big growth areas that will continue to become more prevalent and impactful in our day-to-day lives.

“Genomics is such a powerful technology,” she said. “You have cancer diagnostics based on next generation (genetic) sequencing that are getting a much more comprehensive view of the determinants for treatment success. They have products now that can sequence hundreds of cancer-associated genes, rather than just looking at a few point mutations. You get so much more information now.”

How information gets used is a new frontier in and of itself, as well. One with its own set of opportunities.

“Downstream,” said Dr. Niemz, “the whole bioinformatics and data analytics part of the of the equation is a really exciting and interesting field where there's definite growth potential.”

The possibilities, again, seem endless.

The only limitation: will there be enough scientists and engineers in the U.S. to do the work?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), job openings for bioengineers and biomedical engineers are projected to grow 10 percent from 2021 to 2031, “faster than the average for all occupations.” That equates to 1,200 openings per year for the next decade. All STEM job categories are expected to grow 8%. And the average annual salary of a STEM professional, according the BLS: $100,900 annually.

Contrast all that, however, with a 9% percent drop in four-year undergraduate enrollment full-time in the U.S. between 2010 and 2021, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics, with only a .02% increase being projected from 2021 to 2030.

"There definitely is a demographic shift where undergraduate institutions are realizing that the number of high school graduates is going down, which means there's fewer students enrolling in college. And fewer students who are deciding to go for engineering majors," said Dr. Niemz.

Between Fall 2021 and Fall 2022, there was a 4.2% drop in Biological and Biomedical Sciences enrollment at the bachelor's level, according to the National Student Clearinghouse. That's after only a .5% increase from 2015 to 2021.

Engineering enrollment at the bachelor's level has dropped 2.5% since Fall 2021. That's following a 3% decline from 2015 to 2021.

"I think that at some point in time we may be heading towards a labor shortage because they're just going be fewer graduates, fewer people entering the industry," said Dr. Niemz.

As it stands, the demand for scientists and engineers is already staggering, as STEM job openings continue to outpace available candidates at a rate of 7 to 1.

States and schools are getting creative to reverse declining STEM enrollments. Take Maine, for example. Or Drexel's community college promise, along with dual enrollment programs at the high-school level.

At KGI, Dr. Niemz used to coordinate outreach at the K-12 levels.

"One problem (schools in general) have, is we need to more proactively reach out to students who are just starting their educational careers," she said. "At the beginning, it's vital that we explain better what the career options are. Having better outreach programs and really explaining what the career opportunities are, and what the exciting career paths are, can facilitate getting more students into engineering majors and then retaining them."

Parting Thoughts: Educational and Career Advice from Karishma, Alex, and Dr. Niemz

Karishma and Alex are still writing their stories at Actalent. We’re excited for the many chapters yet to come as they continue to grow in an industry with tremendous possibilities. Contained within what we’ve learned from them already, there are valuable lessons and experiences to pass along. Here, in their own words, Alex and Karishma, as well as Dr. Niemz, leave us with a few thoughts on succeeding as students and professionals in the medical device industry, a career path that’s allowed them flexibility, security, and the opportunity to impact the world in very meaningful ways.

Be innovative in your thinking

“If you tend to think the same way, you’re going to get the same result. That’s when the industry runs into issues. Be curious and innovative in your thinking. Companies want folks who actually can come up with new ideas and propose new solutions. If one way is not working you have to find another way, right? That’s what’s going to drive change and improvements.” – Karishma

Find and rely on a good mentor

“Mentorship is incredibly valuable. Having people who can speak to the work that you're doing from an outside perspective is crucial. Mentorship is essential to anyone coming out of college. Coming out of college you only can, and should, have so much confidence. Some people come out with a little too much. Some people come out with not enough. A mentor is necessary to be able to check both scenarios, because in the real world you have to start accounting for all sorts of factors and things that you don't pay attention to when you're doing a paper assignment in college.” – Alex

Develop soft skills

“The tricky thing engineers sometimes struggle with is this whole soft skills thing: teamwork, communication, conflict resolution, leadership. This is a team sport and you really have to be able to work together with others. It's important, I think, within your education to look out not only for getting the hard skills, but also getting the soft skills. And I think that's a differentiation between, say, an online certificate program, where you're doing a bunch of asynchronous courses that teach you the content, but you never really interact with your peers, or there's no co-op program or there’s no capstone program, nothing of that sort. Paying attention to those soft skills is going to be critical in an interview because you need to be able to present yourself and sell yourself. If you're too focused on just the hard skills, you can actually hinder your own success later on.” – Dr. Niemz

Expand your horisons

“Stay focused on your courses. Learn as much as you can from professors, ask questions. But don’t just do your assignments for the sake of completing them. Try to learn and understand all you can. The more areas and concentrations you learn about, the more helpful it will be in finding out which areas interest you most. And when you do find areas that interest you, ask professors in those areas if they are doing any studies or research that you could be involved in. Attend seminars about the fields that interest you. Ask faculty if they know of any internships. Some of them have connections with these companies. Just keep learning and be involved.” – Karishma

Be a mentor. It will make you better

“Me getting up to speed in my career, not only after failing that one obsolescence project that I mentioned, was only accomplished by having constant mentorship, not just from my assigned mentor, but just being surrounded by people who were more experienced and smarter than I was. And then, within two years, I was assigned to be a mentor, and that forced me to make sure that I had my stuff together and could actually speak to the things that I was telling this other individual to do. I had to really buckle down and make sure that I knew what I was talking about and could answer questions and we could be honest. And when I didn't know the answer, I had to be able to point to and rely on someone else.” – Alex

Attract and retain students by ensuring and explaining the relevance of their courses

“It's super frustrating sitting through a bunch of really hard courses where you get the sense that none of this stuff is really going to matter later on. So, number one, you have to design the courses so that they are relevant and then also communicate the relevance to the students,” said Dr. Niemz. “My thinking is that you have to give students a little bit more ownership of their own education and provide them with opportunities to really interact with companies and understand what different career paths are out there.” – Dr. Niemz

Have integrity

“Work with integrity. To me, that’s being honest with others and honest with yourself. If you don’t know something, say you don’t know. And if you want to learn, let people know you want to learn.” – Karishma

Care about what you do

Find something that you care about to work on. I very much agree with the notion that if you're going to go to college, come out with a degree that will get you a good job, but don't force yourself to do something that you hate in order to feel like you're accomplishing that. Find something that will interest you and pursue that. Because the most important thing is to care about what you do if you are going to put yourself through the toil that is engineering school. You need to care about what you do because when you get out of school, and you're sitting there, whether you're working from home or in an office, you will be doing engineering. If you've put yourself through all that, and don't like it, you're going to be miserable trying to get through a career in engineering.” – Alex

Make a connection between your work and something bigger

“If you’re in the medical device industry, ask yourself, what is this industry about? Then try to understand and think about how you can make an impact.” – Karishma

Grades don’t always define long-term success

“Understand that some of the smartest people that I've met and some of the most successful people in this industry didn't get straight A's. I've met some people who are not terribly trustworthy that I have worked with that did get great grades.” – Alex

Be patient

“It’s important to do your research and give it time. You need to be focused on making sure before working for a company or taking a position that it’s right for you. And you have to keep trying. That ideal role might not come right away, but you have to keep trying. Keep putting yourself in position to get there.” – Karishma

Learn to work as part of a team

“I'm learning the nuances of how to approach the job in the non-technical ways as well. That is super important for getting into the engineering business, differentiating yourself, and proving yourself to be extremely valuable to the team. Learning to work in a team environment is a big part of it, because if you're in your own little silo doing computer assignments, paper assignments, you don't learn to work well with a team, which is extremely important for designing complex systems.” – Alex

Communication is key

“A lot of times we may have so many ideas, but we need to communicate that with our team members. Clear communication will drive success.” – Karishma

Meet the Experts

Karishma Patel

Karishma is a biomedical engineer. Her career began in 2010. She has a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry and Biochemistry from Montclair State University, 2010, and a Master of Science in Biomedical Engineering from the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT), 2013. She's currently an Engineering Team Lead at Actalent, residing in South Florida.

Alex Watson

Alex is an electrical engineer. His career began as an intern in 2015. He obtained a of Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering from North Carolina State University, 2016, and a Master of Science in Electrical Engineering from North Carolina State, 2017. He's currently a Hardware Project Lead at Actalent, residing in Raleigh, NC.