4 Reasons Why Bioengineers Make the Best Generalists

Generalists move the world. They are the critical masterminds that lead our nations and grow our businesses. They are the technological gurus that design our everyday experiences and define how we interact with the world. They are the interdisciplinary leaders that teach society not just what we learn, but also how and why we learn. The best generalists elevate breakthroughs to the societal level and, in doing so, advance humanity.

I have written previously about the value of being a strong generalist and the qualities that comprise a technical generalist in particular. Most significantly, I note that generalists are bred, not born — we can teach ourselves and others to be knowledgeable across fields. At Stanford, I discovered the gold standard of technical generalists: bioengineers.

To be fair, I’ll admit my bias: I completed my bachelor’s degree in bioengineering. I have worked alongside computer scientists, electrical engineers, mechanical engineers, and more, some of whom are great generalists. But there’s something about a bioengineering curriculum in particular that forces students to be interdisciplinary in a way other fields may not.

Here are the 4 reasons I’ve found that explain why:

1.) Bioengineering is Multidisciplinary

In order to be an effective bioengineer, one needs to study a variety of fields, ranging from basic sciences (chemistry, physics, biology, math, etc.) to engineering fundamentals (mechanical, electrical, and software engineering, among others). While other fields might require some or all of the above, the nature of bioengineering necessitates an understanding in these fields lest the engineer overlook an important aspect of their work.

2.) Bioengineering is Interdisciplinary

Living things are inordinately messy. Bioengineers don’t just need to understand the various fields individually, they also need to understand how they interact. Here’s where a seemingly simple experiment or product can get derailed, since biological systems are uniquely intertwined.

Take your average pacemaker, for example. In order to design the final product, engineers had to understand the electrical rhythm and anatomy of a human heart, the mechanical and computer components of the device, the surgical procedure required for installation, and a host of other technical and business implications.

The system-level design approach required for most bioengineering work trains budding generalists to handle complex systems and constant context switching.

3.) Bioengineering in Constrained
The regulation, reimbursement, and ethics traditionally associated with bioengineering force individuals to be discerning and resource savvy. Before a life-changing product like the pacemaker is placed in humans, it needs to pass a battery of formalized tests to prove safety and efficacy. With sufficient data, the inventors then need to secure partnerships with insurers and doctors to subsidize and popularize the pacemaker as a treatment option.

Years of work and millions of dollars are poured into bioengineering projects, necessitating deliberate and methodical foresight on behalf of the engineer. Given the limited opportunities for user testing, predicting product-market fit is difficult, which is one reason why bioengineering conventionally gravitates towards less ambitious and more proven products. Whereas a computer scientist might publish code every week, reverting changes as needed, it is a bioengineer’s responsibility to consider the highly constrained industry and think about the implementation of their technology. In other words, because there is no equivalent for hastily “pushing code” as a bioengineer, decisions are calculated more carefully, further developing the engineer’s sense of market factors.

4.) Bioengineering is Nascent

Combine the lethargic institutions of bioengineering with the field’s breakneck speed of innovation and you get one of the most significant moving targets of any industry. A company might design a product with cutting edge technology only to see that technology become completely obsolete by the time the product reaches market. Recent breakthroughs in techniques (like CRISPR for genetic engineering) force bioengineers to be constantly aware of new methodology since the industry could drastically change at any time. The nimble thinking and global awareness required to keep up to date leaves these engineers more capable to learn new skills and gain diverse expertise. Scrappy thinking translates into stronger generalists.

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