Applying engineering technology to problems in medicine and health, bioengineering is not for the faint-hearted. But if you’re smart and able, and have a strong social conscience, a career in public health research may be your thing.
Ritu Kamal discovered the connection between science and social causes during her year in South Africa, where she worked for Mothers2Mothers. M2M offers a sustainable model of care for pregnant women and new mothers living with HIV/AIDS.
The experience reinforced Ritu’s desire to improve public health through applied science. With a Princeton degree in electrical engineering (and minors in engineering biology and neuroscience), she’s now finishing her masters in bioengineering at Penn.
We asked Ritu how her Africa adventure prepared her for a career in biomedical R&D.
Researching Biomedicine with Ritu Kamal, University of Pennsylvania
Why did you join Mothers2Mothers after graduating with a degree in electrical engineering?
I am interested in the biomedical applications arena and, more broadly, in healthcare. I wanted to spend time working in the field, engaging with applications of biomedicine and the people who use it before going back to graduate school and the scientific aspects. The Princeton in Africa Fellowship gave me the opportunity to do that.
What was it like for you to live and work in South Africa?
It was an incredible opportunity to live in a completely different country and take my first step “into the real world” there. South Africa really has all the best bits of Africa–the culture, the beauty and the diversity. It also has the world’s worst HIV problem, so was an interesting place to work in the HIV/AIDS field.
How does Mothers2Mothers work to improve public health there?
Mothers2Mothers is a non-governmental organization (NGO) that works with HIV-positive pregnant women to prevent HIV transmission to their babies. Education and clinical solutions, along with social and psychological support systems pioneered by Mothers2Mothers, are helping mothers with HIV/AIDS to live long and healthy lives, care for their families and have hope for the future.
How did working for an NGO prepare you for the next phase of your career?
I gained several skills working with an NGO, including research, report writing, project management, negotiating with partner organizations, drafting contracts–things I never had the opportunity to do as an engineer.
The best part about working with a small but rapidly growing NGO was the opportunity to do a little bit of everything. And, as with any job and any international experience, I learned a lot about my own goals and the things that motivate me.
What advice would you give Doostangers who want to work in the public health field?
I would say you should try to find a fellowship, internship or program that allows you to work in the field with patients, either domestically or abroad, depending on your interest. If you do decide to go on to get a Masters in Public Health or any other advanced degree, your graduate school experience will be much better for it.
In either case, you need a basic knowledge of the life sciences, strong communication skills, and the ability to be adaptable and flexible, especially when working internationally. Foreign language skills can be very useful.
What prompted you to go on for your masters degree?
During my research work as an undergrad at Princeton, I got very interested in bioengineering and knew that I eventually wanted to work in the biomedical field, for which a masters is useful—if not essential.
Where do you see yourself in five years, and how will you get there?
I see myself working in the biotech sector, possibly on biomedical innovations for resource-poor settings, combining my non-profit experience with my bioengineering research experience.
While I’ve been at Penn, I’ve been getting some experience by working as a researcher at the Center for Advanced Study of India, studying the biotech/pharmaceutical industry in India.
From NGOs to government agencies at home and abroad, there’s a real need for field workers with a passion for the public good.
Taking your skills to the next level, you can research and develop the products that change peoples lives for the better.
Whatever path you take, Doostang can put you in touch with hiring managers along the way.