Brett Almond used to wonder why the surgeons he watched on The Learning Channel's "Operation" didn't have better tools and equipment. Now a graduate student pursuing both an engineering doctorate and a medical degree, he knows the answer only too well.
"There's a big communications gap between the engineering and medical fields," he says.
Almond, who earned his bachelor's degree in materials science and engineering at the University of Florida, is the first student to pursue medical and doctoral degrees through the UF College of Medicine's M.D./Ph.D. program. All other students in the 12-year-old program have sought doctorates in medical specialties such as pharmacology or radiology.
The 25-year-old has twin goals of practicing medicine and designing better medical devices.
"Part of our problem as engineers is knowing what they're doing in hospitals that needs to be worked on," he says. "As a doctor and engineer, I'll know the problems as well as the tools."
Even by graduate school standards, Almond is in for a long haul. He passed his first round of medical board exams last year after completing two of the four years required for a medical degree. He then launched his graduate research in materials science and engineering, a period that can last from three to six years. Once he earns his engineering doctorate, he'll return to medical school for two years of classes and clinical rotation.
With a grade point average exceeding 3.5 in both engineering and medicine, Almond is clearly up to the challenge. But it's not always easy. He says one of the biggest obstacles is straddling the different intellectual and social cultures of medicine and engineering.
"The style of thought is completely different," he says. "Medical school so far has been more about acquiring knowledge and studying it and sorting it than what I find in engineering, which is 'I have these tools and I have this problem and how am I going to solve it.'"
While medical students are a tight-knit lot with a work-hard, play-hard philosophy, graduate school in engineering tends to reward independence and self-discipline, Almond says.
"For two years in medical school, you're in the same classroom with 80 to 100 people," he says. "In engineering, I work on my own with a small research group."
If he can bridge the gap between the professions long enough to finish both degrees, Almond will likely be a hot commodity professionally. His major professor, Eugene Goldberg, says that as health care becomes more and more technology driven, people who can straddle the fence between engineering and medicine will become increasingly valuable.
"I think there is a growing trend toward this elite educational group who will have married backgrounds in medicine and engineering and materials science," says Goldberg, a professor of materials science and engineering and director of the UF Biomaterials Center. "These are the people who will become the whiz kids of the biomedical industry if they choose to go that way."
Although Almond may be the first to seek joint medical and engineering terminal degrees, he likely won't be the last. The College of Engineering launched a biomedical engineering graduate program last year, a development that is sure to spur more interest and activity in upper-level medical/engineering degrees.