Biomedical Engineering IE Pre-Grad Intern Damilare Ajibade
I had the pleasure of working with Rebecca Vincelette throughout the fall 2007 semester. Rebecca is a PhD candidate in the Biomedical Engineering field and her work involves laser safety mostly geared towards military personnel but useful for civilians as well. Many of the military's laser equipment have not endured thorough safety testing and that is where Rebecca's work becomes important regarding the short and long-term effects of human exposure to lasers. Rebecca is also a member of the United States Air Force and she primarily works from the Brooks Air Force Base in San Antonio. Rebecca's path to graduate school was different than most since she worked in industry for a few years before enlisting in the military. The Air Force ordered her to earn her PhD degree and she chose biomedical engineering. She actually earned her bachelor's degree in electrical engineering so it was interesting for me to see how an electrical engineer could adjust to biomedical engineering at a higher and much more detailed level and succeed.
I chose to involve myself in the intellectual entrepreneurship program partly because I saw it as a way to gain some insight into the inner workings of Graduate school specifically in the biomedical field. I decided earlier in the year that I would pursue an advanced degree beyond my Bachelor of Science but I was not sure about the field that I would pursue it in. Rebecca introduced me to many of the concepts that she works with daily as a biomedical engineer. At the beginning of the semester, she explained the primary concepts underpinning optics as well as her research on laser safety. I got the chance to set up a laser assembly in the biomedical laser laboratories in the basement of the Engineering Science building and to meet with other PhD students and learn about their research. One interesting research project involved the invisible person idea. The graduate student was looking into how injecting certain lipids under human skin could change the index on refraction of light and enable the light to pass straight through the skin, giving the illusion of invisibility.
Throughout the semester, Rebecca shared her experiences and encounters with the politics involved in graduate school including personal tales as well as the experiences of colleagues. One situation that came up was that many professors decide to pull students' funding just before they graduate leaving the students with no funding with which to finish their research and/or coursework. Some professors also overwork and disrespect their students. The remedy for both situations seems to be securing external funding before committing to a school and thoroughly researching programs and professors before making any decisions. This insight let me know that as an engineer, I should not have to pay for graduate school. It is entirely possible to earn money to attend graduate school and only focus on my research and coursework. If I apply early for fellowships and research thoroughly, I will have an edge over most of my peers who may not know about the existence of many available fellowships. I learned about the additive GEM fellowship as well as numerous NSF fellowships and nomination-only fellowships. Rebecca actually partly pays for graduate school through a nomination-only fellowship that her fellow Air Force officers nominated her for. She never knew the fellowship in question ever existed. Rebecca also reiterated warnings on choosing the most compatible projects and professors. I learned that professors often use their students' network to find out about a student. It is not a stretch then to obtain information about the professor and their research from students because these students often will give truthful answers to such questions.
In many cases, the politics of graduate school trickles down to the students themselves. The stringent GPA requirements make it a necessity for every graduate student to earn an A. In a class composed of all graduate students, professors only award a set number of A's and this means that the graduate students actively seek to undermine the work of their fellow students in order to ensure that they earn the high grades in order to keep their funding and avoid getting expelled from school. The backbiting can make the experience very unpleasant aside from the research aspect.
Toward the end of the semester, Rebecca invited me to tour the Brooks Air Force base in San Antonio so that I could actually see the laboratory she worked in and what she was doing. I would also get the opportunity to network with people who have ties with many graduate schools nationwide, UT-Austin included. Rebecca wanted me to meet some of the people that nominated her for the fellowship that she earned so that I would have access to the same network that she had access to. While on the base, Rebecca gave me a comprehensive tour of the labs, introducing me to each person she worked with along the way. I had the chance to see the labs where Rebecca and her colleagues tested laser skin and eye damage. It was interesting to be in the same lab that the inventor of Lasik worked in before leaving to start promoting his invention. Apparently, the work that the lab was doing on laser-eye interaction sparked an idea about fixing eye problems with lasers in the man's mind and as an entrepreneur, he decided to sell his idea personally rather than use it to earn the Air Force some more money. I attended a potluck lunch where I met two former UT-Austin graduate students who spoke with me briefly about my choice to attend graduate school. They briefly discussed their path through graduate school with me while we mingled and dialogued.
I certainly see the benefit of a program such as Entrepreneurial Internship and it has helped me understand what it takes to be successful in graduate school apart from the desire to work hard and learn. Graduate school can be very rewarding if I do my research ahead of time and make sure that the project, school, and professor that I work with are the best fit for me.