The field of biomedical engineering can be tough, what with the intense education and training, and the ever-evolving technological changes. For women, in particular, overcoming these challenges can be intimidating. For those willing to take on the task, biomedical engineering may well be one of the most satisfying and rewarding careers around. Using their intellect and their technical and relationship skills, these women have learned to navigate the sometimes tricky waters.

“When I first came into this field, I had instances where people said, ‘Do you really know what you’re doing? Why don’t you go get someone who might know a little bit more?’ ” says Michelle Sanders, biomedical equipment coordinator for the Sebastian River Medical Center/HMA Facility in Sebastian, Fla. “You do have to work doubly hard to prove that you actually know the facts that you do.”

As a “working manager,” Michelle Sanders wears multiple hats. Colleague CM Bryant says Barbara Lavin is “a tireless force.”

As a truck driver in the army, Sanders was used to being around equipment and taking apart equipment. “When I started taking things apart at home, my husband told me I needed to go back to school,” she says. “So I went back to school and got my biomedical degree. It was everything I was looking for.”

Sanders believes that while female biomeds may have an initially more demanding workplace, once they have proven themselves, things do get easier. “Once we get the trust of the people that we work with, and we show them that we sincerely care about keeping their equipment up and maintained, then they don’t care that we are women,” she says.

Barbara Lavin, chief biomedical engineer for the North Chicago Veterans Affairs Medical Center, agrees. “I do think it’s tougher for younger females because I think people may take them less seriously,” she says. “I tell them to stand their ground. You are good at what you do, and if people are going to make comments or try to stereotype you, just ignore it. As soon as they see that you are good at what you do, they’ll stop.”

Lavin, who has a biomedical engineering degree from Boston University, is a veteran of the biomedical engineering field. She is currently coordinating the biomedical engineering portion with the Navy of the Joint Federal Health Care Center. The project will integrate the nearby Navy clinic with the VA’s medical center in North Chicago, allowing treatment for military personnel, their families, military retirees, and veterans.

Lavin has also created the Great Lakes Organization of Biomedical Engineers, which pools maintenance resources. The organization has saved the VA more than half a million dollars in combined purchasing power. She also mentors interns from the biomedical engineering program at Marquette University. “I mentor male and female interns, and some of their parents are surprised that I’m female,” she says. “They just assume their kids would be mentored by a male.”

Beverly Corne, front line manager for Aramark and clinical technology services manager for Pender Memorial Hospital in Burgaw, NC, has also found that female biomeds are sometimes held to stricter standards.

“You’ve got to prove yourself to be worthy,” she says. “Once they find you are willing to get in there and do whatever you’ve got to do—climb the ladder or use the tools—without any problem, they’re like, ‘Hey, she’s all right.’ “

Beverly Corne was one of only three women in her biomed program. Mark Dinnius, SrA, at Travis AFB, calls Cayla Balley “outstanding.”

A Diversity of Opportunity

Female biomeds are increasingly finding a variety of challenging equipment and projects that they can sink their teeth into. Many of these projects offer the kinds of challenges that can present opportunities to stimulate the mind and grow a robust career.

“Every piece of equipment that comes in has different specifications and different workings, so you’re constantly learning something new,” says Cayla Balley, biomedical equipment technician at the David Grant Medical Center at Travis Air Force Base, Calif. “It’s a good challenge.”

Balley joined the military when she was 22, and now, 2 years later, is working on a variety of medical equipment projects within the medical center at Travis Air Force Base. She also travels 4 months of the year to service equipment on the surrounding bases within an eight-state Western region of the United States.

“I was working in the medical field before I joined the military, and I thought [the biomedical field] would be a challenge for me,” she says. “There are so many different avenues you can take with this job. From working directly with a company, or working in a hospital setting, there are a lot of opportunities.”

And the opportunities do abound. As an example, Jennifer C. Ott, CCE, project manager and equipment planner for Northstar Management Company LLC in Sunset Hills, Mo, spent 14 years as a clinical engineer in a hospital setting after graduating from Marquette University with a biomedical engineering degree. Recently, Ott took her skills to the construction management industry, where she is now working at St John’s Mercy Medical Center in St Louis. She oversees the equipment planning for what will be a new seven-story patient tower (See sidebar).

Lavin also went into biomedical engineering for the opportunities she felt the industry could offer. “You can work in industry, equipment design, or equipment quality assurance,” she says. “You can go into teaching, or work in sales. There are a lot of options, and that’s another reason why it’s a great career.”

Sanders echoes the sentiment of all. “Our field is so diverse,” she says. “If you want to work in home care, you can work in home care. If you want to go completely high-tech and work with the most high-tech equipment in the operating room, you can. With training, you can do anything.”

Jennifer C. Ott now guides clients through construction projects. Also “outstanding” at Travis are Stephenie Woelfel, above, and Kristine Spence (not pictured).

Utilizing Contrasting Skill Sets

Female biomeds succeed, in large part, because they embody a myriad of technical and relationship skills that they use effectively every day in their work. Especially important are the communication skills they must use to talk to men, company leadership, and to co-workers. It takes understanding and a bit of finesse.

“You have to look at your resources and explain what you’re trying to accomplish, so that people understand what you’re doing,” Ott says. “You need to be able to talk on the administration-manager-medical director level, and I think that’s another advantage of being a woman. We can figure out how to carry on that conversation without being a techno-geek and talking above them.”

Corne also feels that women bring strong decision-making capabilities to the table. “We weigh out what’s wrong, what can be done to fix it, and then we do it,” she says. “It may not always be right, but you’ve got to make a decision. If it doesn’t work, you do something else.”

Sensitivity can also play an important role in interpersonal relations, and Sanders believes that women bring a certain female receptiveness to their work. “Instead of a cold technical feel, I think we give things a more personal hands-on touch,” she says. “When it comes to customer service, I think we go the extra mile because we are more in tune with people’s emotions. And I think we look into things a little deeper and past what’s just below the surface.”

It Isn’t Without Challenges

While some may think that female biomeds face many challenges in the workplace, these women feel the list is fairly short—and mainly physical. “Sometimes you can’t physically pick something up by yourself, so you learn how to ask for help,” Corne says. “I’ve never had a problem getting help, and the men I work with don’t see that as a weakness.” Conversely, Corne is always willing to give help where needed. “There are some things that my hands can get to that a man’s can’t,” she says. “You’ve got to learn how to work together with the physical restraints of being a male or a female working in this field, and you’ve got to help each other.”

Stephenie Woelfel, A1C, at Travis Air Force Base, Calif, finds that the physical aspects of the job can pose obstacles, but they need not be daunting. “I’m not as strong as some of the guys in the shop, and lifting heavier equipment would be one of my difficulties,” she says. “But some of the equipment is so heavy that even the guys can’t lift it. It’s really about intelligence, and there’s no real divide that says intelligence is easier for men to do than women.”

Which is true. No matter the gender, biomedical education is demanding. “To get through the schooling is not an easy task,” Lavin says. “Engineering school is still engineering school.”

Ultimately, Ott emphasizes intellect, communication, and effectively juggling priorities as the keys to success in this field, things that she feels most women bring naturally to the arena but must still nonetheless be honed.

“A lot of it is getting your voice heard with administration, so they can understand the goals that you or your department are trying to accomplish,” she says. “Health care is undergoing such stress right now, so it’s really trying to look at your resources and better allocate what you’re doing while still providing a good product for your end customer, which is ultimately the patient.”

Greater and Greater Rewards

Many female biomeds are finding the rewards of being a technician more than make up for the few challenges they face. First and foremost on the list is the opportunity to interact with and help a variety of people, whether they are end users or the public.

“I think it’s great to walk into work and have people say, ‘Oh, I’m so glad you’re here,’ ” Corne says. “I think also being a woman, and working mostly with nurses, is a benefit. I think they identify with me more, and I can identify with them and be more sympathetic.”

For Woelfel, a combination of working with people while ensuring patient safety was a big reason in her pursuing the biomedical field. “It’s a way to work in the medical field, ensuring that people are safe while they are in the hospital,” she says. “I like to go through the sections and see all the equipment that we’ve worked on, knowing that anyone that comes in here isn’t going to have to worry about the equipment hurting them or malfunctioning.”

One of Sanders’ greatest rewards came shortly after working in her job. “When I first became a biomed, all I did was pumps,” she says. “I went up to one of the intensive care units and I realized that the infusion pump, the food pump, and the pain medication pump on the patient had my stickers on them. They were helping to keep that patient alive. I helped save a life, and that’s what keeps me going.”

While engineering in general is still a male-dominated profession, seemingly more women are jumping into biomedical engineering. Lavin, who mentors biomedical college students at Marquette University—including Ott when she went through the program—remembers that when she went to school 20 years ago there were three or four women out of 100 students in her classes. “Now there are times when I have more female students than male students,” she says.

Ott has also noticed the difference. “When I was going through the undergraduate program at Marquette University, there were four women in a class of 50 men,” she says. “Now it’s like four men in a class of 50 women.”

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These women just entering the field may understand what those who have been in the field a while know: A biomedical career offers challenging opportunities and the experience of making a difference. Women who have the intellect and drive to succeed will find an array of tangible and intangible opportunities and satisfactions throughout their career.

Other things can also be a draw, according to Balley. “You work with tools, and you get dirty,” she says. “It’s fun. There is definitely a place for women in this field, and I think we need more women to give us a healthy balance. Besides,” she adds, “it’s kind of cool being a woman that knows how to use power tools.”

Cynthia Kincaid is a contributing writer for 24×7. For more information, contact .

Choose Your Path

The field of biomedical engineering offers many paths to success. Some biomeds go to work in a hospital or health care setting, while others go to work for industry doing equipment design or sales.

After spending 14 years as a clinical engineer for a hospital, Jennifer C. Ott, CCE, blazed a less traveled path into the field of construction planning. Now a project manager and equipment planner for Northstar Management Company LLC in Sunset Hills, Mo, Ott is overseeing the equipment planning and installation for a $16.8 million seven-story patient tower at St John’s Mercy Medical Center in St Louis.

“Once a week I’m out there touring the job site, meeting with the principals of the general contractor, as well as meeting with the subcontractors and vendors,” she says. “I’m coordinating drawings and doing mock-ups of rooms, so everyone can see what a room is going to look like.”

This might seem like an unusual path for a biomed to take, but it just goes to show how varied a career in biomedical engineering can be.

Ott found out through an architect that Northstar was looking for someone with medical equipment experience, and the opportunity intrigued her.

“I met with some of the employees to get an idea of their day-to-day activities and thought it was something a little unique,” she says. “I still use my technical knowledge and my equipment expertise, as it applies to installation and patient care. I’m now just using a different facet of my skills.”