Applying Biomedical Engineering to Law



Stephen Chen's decision to pursue a law degree after earning his bachelor's in biomedical engineering was a practical one. Likewise, his decision to major in biomedical engineering was also pragmatic in nature.

"I started at UT as a premedical microbiology student," Stephen says, "But I wasn't really sure about medical school."

After his first year in college, the Department of Biomedical Engineering was established, and students could earn bachelor's degrees in the subject. That's when Stephen transferred to the program.

"I thought an engineering degree would lend itself to more professional opportunities, and I was still able to learn about biology and pursue medicine if I wanted to take that path.Stephen graduated with the department's inaugural class of undergraduates in 2006. He then went to the University of Houston to earn his law degree and The University of Texas School of Public Health to earn his master's in Public Health.

His interest in law started after working as an undergraduate research assistant in Dr. Christine Schmidt's lab. In that lab, he and other students worked on regenerating peripheral nerves. It was while conducting this research that Stephen's interest in patent law was piqued.

Later, during a summer internship at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Stephen heard a talk given by the dean of the law school at the University of Houston. The following summer he interned with the dean and applied the scientific method to researching the effectiveness of Fee Review Committees in Chapter 11 bankruptcy cases. That experience solidified his intent to become a lawyer.

"What I was most impressed with was getting a glimpse of what it means to think like a lawyer."

Although he became a licensed patent agent during law school and sees intellectual property law as a field he could still pursue in the future, today he works in the Enforcement Division of the Texas Department of Insurance Division of Workers' Compensation. The division regulates workers' compensation system participants, including insurance carriers, employees, employers, and healthcare providers. He was hired after attaining a public interest fellowship as a law student, and was retained after he graduated because of his background in biomedical engineering.

"One reason they were interested in me is because of my understanding of medical terminology and the biology behind the cases where physicians were providing medically unnecessary care to injured employees," he says.

Stephen feels that engineering and law are well-suited to each other, and he credits The University of Texas at Austin for where he is today.

"The critical thinking skills I developed as an engineering student are the same types of skills that are required of a lawyer, Stephen says. "Both fields require the ability to think logically, in a step-by-step fashion, as you work through an issue. There are also important distinctions between the fields. In engineering, we often deal with certainty. We know that force will always equal mass times acceleration. This is a fundamental law of nature that will not change. In law, we often deal with ambiguity. You have to be able to remain emotionally objective and morally neutral because there may be no 'right' answer, or, there may be two 'right' answers, or no answer at all. Engineering is generally more quantitative by nature, whereas the study of law is more qualitative, as it seeks to define contours of rights and limits to privileges across the spectrum of human behavior. Biomedical engineering is unique though because you have to be able to deal with knowns as well as unknowns. At the most basic level, biomedical engineers seek to manipulate the human body using engineering principles. However, the human body is extremely complex and its reaction to foreign stimuli can be quite unpredictable. Such is the nature of law, too, as it can be unpredictable because it is changing every day in response to human behavior. Regardless of the similarities and distinctions between the two fields, one thing is for certain—analytical thinking is a must."

Beyond being a place that set a foundation for Stephen to hone his critical thinking skills, The University of Texas at Austin was the setting where he created memories and met his fiancée, Courtney Creecy, who also graduated with a B.S. in biomedical engineering in 2006.

"Although we had all the same classes, I didn't work up the nerve to talk to her until our senior year," says Stephen.

The two met in an engineering communications class—the same class where students presented a video showing off their dance skills in what is known to the class of 2006 as the infamous "BME Dance-Off."

Even in programs with rigorous coursework, students find time to have fun. A number of biomedical engineering students from the class of 2006 came up with the idea to host a dance contest. One student developed a website to promote the event and word soon got out across campus. The Daily Texan even covered it.

"The contest started out as an inside joke but suddenly there was publicity because of the website and all of these people showed up to see us nerdy engineering students 'dance'," Stephen recalls.

Either in spite of, or maybe because of, his dance skills, Stephen and Courtney began their relationship shortly after the contest. She is finishing up her PhD in biomedical engineering at The University of Texas San Antonio. The two will be married this June.