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students in BME 462: Medical Instrumentation construct circuits
September 3, 2020

New course builds connections for BME graduate students

Written By: Tom Ziemer


As a first-year graduate student in chemical engineering at Northwestern University, Pamela Kreeger saw familiar faces day after day as she sat in a handful of required classes in kinetics, fluid mechanics and other core topics.

Now, as an associate professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Kreeger hopes to instill a similar sense of communal belonging among graduate students in her department. Kreeger has created a course that will connect new BME graduate students across disparate areas of study, while also covering required topics and skills for properly conducting research.

“BME’s a really diverse curriculum,” says Kreeger, who’s also the department’s associate chair of graduate advising. “But we still wanted to have that kind of experience you get by taking a class and getting to know your classmates. The hope is they’ll build some connections and then as they go on in their research groups, they’ll still know people in other labs and know what the other labs do.”

The course will also help BME graduate students clear an important regulatory hurdle. In order to work on projects funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) or the National Science Foundation (NSF), students are required to undergo responsible conduct of research training, covering topics such as safe lab practices, conflicts of interest and data management. Previously, BME students have fulfilled the requirement through offerings in the School of Medicine and Public Health.

But Kreeger is expanding the course’s scope beyond those topics mandated by the NIH and NSF to include issues like diversity and implicit bias, career options other than academia or industry research, and wellness and self-care. She sees the latter as a particularly vital area amid the COVID-19 pandemic—in fact, the department recently started a social media wellness challenge on Twitter (#BMEwellness).

“This idea that you should have a life outside of grad school and that you should take care of yourself, because you will be a better scientist for doing that, is something that I think all scientists struggle with,” says Kreeger.

Kreeger plans to open the course with a key fundamental notion: Graduate school is not undergraduate 2.0. Classwork becomes more a means of preparation for research, and research goes well beyond the type of shared experience and results students encounter in an undergraduate lab.

And she notes that, for early career graduate students, exploring new sciences requires persevering through what can be an unpleasant state of bewilderment.

“You have to get used to that uncomfortable feeling and keep pushing yourself until suddenly you’ll ask the right questions, you’ll do the right experiments, and you’ll understand something new that nobody has known before,” she says. “That’s, I think, a cool thing, but I don’t think I realized that going into grad school.”