Nothing is as impactful as being part of developing a system that complements medical professionals in improving surgical outcomes and patient recovery times significantly .

Supriya Thathachary, our next pathbreaker, Biomedical Systems Engineer, works for a startup that develops surgical robots that help surgeons in making very precise and clean cuts that are repeatable every time.

Supriya talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about applying her background in Electrical Engineering and Biomedical Engineering to the field of medical device design to improve the lives of patients through technology.

For students, always remember that the sacrifices you make in the short term open up several long term advantages in your life and career.

Supriya, tell us about Your background?

I grew up on the campus of the Indian Institute of Science. My father was a professor of Electrical Engineering at IISc, and my mother worked as a teacher in a nearby school.

I was surrounded by scientists and engineers which gave me exposure to science at an early age. I was also interested in reading, and developed strong language skills in English and other Indian languages. My interests outside of school were in sports and music, and both continue to be strong interests.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

After high school, I completed my bachelors in Electrical Engineering, followed by a master of science in Electrical Engineering as well. The masters program was two years, one year of coursework and one year of research. Seeing that I enjoyed the research component, I then went on to complete a PhD in Biomedical Engineering from University of Minnesota. 

I completed my undergraduate degree in Bangalore, India. Though I did win a prize for the best final year project, I didn’t have scholarships or awards during my undergraduate studies. In my masters’ degree, however, I received support via a teaching assistantship and research assistantships, as is offered to every student who qualifies to attend the IITs at a postgraduate level. My PhD degree was also fully funded through research assistantships, and I won several travel awards through university contests which helped me travel to conferences to present my work. 

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and unique career?

My current role is that of a Systems Engineer at a startup company that makes surgical robots. My education in Electrical Engineering and Biomedical Engineering prepared me well for this career.

My key influencers for choosing this career path were my mathematics and biology teachers in high school, and my physics teachers in college, who were excellent, and made me really take a keen interest in doing well in their classes. This is a big reason I am where I am today.

I decided to decline a high paying job after my college degree to pursue a masters degree for which I needed to study hard for a very competitive entrance examination. This sacrifice in the short term opened up a lot of longer term advantages for my life and career.

My PhD advisor is an excellent Biomedical researcher and gave me a lot of independence during my PhD. This helped me think independently, come up with original ideas and experiment with designs. This has proved a very useful skill in my current role.

My specialization during my masters degree in Electrical Engineering was “Instrumentation” – the science of developing and improving instruments for various sensors and measurement devices. As part of this specialization, I took a course in Biomedical Instrumentation where we learned to measure our own ECG (electro-cardiograms) and other human physiological parameters. This course was extremely interesting to me and was the main reason I applied to biomedical engineering programs for my PhD. This was definitely a turning point for me.

How did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path.

My undergraduate degree in electrical engineering was my introduction to the world of engineering and instrumentation. We had several little projects that led me to be interested in instrumentation. My master’s degree was then in instrumentation. My specialization during my masters degree in electrical engineering was “Instrumentation” – the science of developing and improving instruments for various sensors and measurement devices. As part of this I took a course in biomedical instrumentation where we learned to measure our own ECG (electro-cardiograms) and other human physiological parameters. This course was extremely interesting to me and was the main reason I applied to biomedical engineering programs for my PhD.

For my PhD thesis, I worked on the development of a device for imaging inside the blood vessels using optical ultrasound technology. During my PhD I also applied online and was selected for two internships with Boston Scientific. Being in a large medical device company, their internships gave me exposure into commercial medical device development. I interacted with teams of engineers working on cardiology products during both internships.

I always wanted to work in a field that impacted several people and improved their lives. With my education in Biomedical engineering, a career in medical device design was a natural path.

My first internship in grad school was with Boston Scientific, Maple Grove, MN. Here I was assigned the task of evaluating the effort, cost, and time in completing electrical safety testing for a medical device. In addition to exposure to industrial medical device design, I learned how to work with test houses, how other teams had navigated similar testing etc.

My second internship was with Boston Scientific as well, but in their intravascular imaging division in Fremont, CA. Here I did a literature review to evaluate upcoming imaging modalities that combined optical and ultrasound imaging with other methods to identify specific tissue types.

How did you get your first break?

Since I was in school most of my life until the age of 29, my current job is my first full-time industry position. I applied to several positions online and interviewed with a few of those and was made an offer by my current employer. Some factors that helped me the most are:

  1. Solid engineering knowledge
  2. Good communication skills
  3. The ability to network well with new professional contacts
  4. Internship experience
  5. Persistence during the application process

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

Challenge 1: 

I am an immigrant, and several job applications would reject me as I needed visa support. Extensive searching with the help of a tool like LinkedIn helped me find enough applications that did not have this filter.

Challenge 2: 

Managing my time between a demanding PhD program and the equally demanding process of preparing and applying for jobs was very hard. It took about 9 months of dedicated effort for me to complete the final stage of my PhD research while looking for the right job for my skills set and preferences. Having clear goals, a broken down schedule and following it through helped me overcome this challenge.

Challenge 3: 

As a female engineer, most of my classes were full of students from the opposite gender. At times, I found myself questioning my abilities due to not seeing female peers or role models often enough in my environment. In these situations, actively looking for female mentors was very helpful. Anyone from a friendly professor in another department to a family friend or an acquaintance you met at an internship can be your mentor – you just need to ask! I have had several generous female mentors who inspired and uplifted me when I needed it most.

Where do you work now? What problems do you solve?

My current role is that of a Systems Engineer at a startup company that makes surgical robots. The advantage of using robots for surgeries is that they make very precise and clean cuts that are repeatable every time. My education in electrical engineering and biomedical engineering prepared me well for this career.

How does your work benefit society? 

I contribute to the development of medical devices. The surgical robots my company makes help surgeons make precise and repeatable cuts on the patients’ bone during knee replacement surgery. This results in a much better fit to the implantable parts of the artificial knee, reduces correction surgery rates and improves patient recovery times significantly. 

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

Recently, I had the opportunity to observe surgeons using our product and interview them about their experience and features they would like incorporated into future versions of the product. It was really inspiring to see the impact my efforts were making in the life of real surgeons and their patients. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Remain very curious about the world around you and mindful of what you are spending time on. As long as you are curious, you will always learn something valuable every day, and when you are passionate about what you learn, it will lead you towards a rewarding career.

Also, learn early the balance between humility and quiet self-confidence. It will help you continue to learn, while not losing confidence when faced with failure. The right attitude towards failure is a key tool for success.

Future Plans?

I hope to continue working in the medical devices industry for the majority of my career. I am interested in transitioning toward roles where I have opportunities to mentor and manage junior engineers while continuing to contribute directly.