first in class
Priya Arunachalam knew that she had a calling to heal, but she also has a mind for solving problems. After earning a B.S. in biomedical engineering and an MBA in healthcare management and entrepreneurship from Johns Hopkins University, the Austin native applied to medical schools knowing that her trajectory would be working as “a doctor-plus,” as she puts it.
Fortunately, a new program that combined the powers of Houston Methodist and Texas A&M University was recruiting its first graduating class. The School of Engineering Medicine allows students to simultaneously earn both a medical doctorate and a master of engineering degree in four years. It was the perfect fit.
On May 19, she will be among the 22 first students to earn those degrees. Five of them are staying on at Houston Methodist and Arunachalam is one of them.
“I am doing a general surgery residency at Houston Methodist. I am leaning towards transplant,” Arunachalam tells InnovationMap.
It’s no easy task to become a member of the EnMed program, as it’s informally known. Classes are capped at just 50 students a year, says Dr. Timothy Boone, director of education at Houston Methodist Academic Institute. He says that in the four years since EnMed launched, the size and diversity of the applicant pool has continued to grow, but it’s a very specific type of student they’re looking for.
Students must have an undergraduate degree in engineering, for one. That, Boone says, attracts problem solvers who also want to practice medicine.
“If you just think of it as a job, you’re in it for the wrong reasons,” he says.
Throughout their four years of education, students put their problem solving to the test. As they learn about medicine, the students see issues at a patient level and come up with engineering solutions.
One of Arunachalam’s creations in her time in EnMed was a redesigned hospital gown that allows for exams despite being less exposed in the back. She’s currently trying to pilot them at Houston Methodist Hospital.
Boone also mentions an ophthalmology student who has gained a preliminary patent on a design for a chair that accommodates more body types than those currently being used by most doctors. Another group of students created Go Baby Go, a toy car specifically designed for children with significant mobility impairment.
EnMed isn’t Houston Methodist’s only innovative collaboration. The University of St. Thomas Cameron School of Business joins forces with Houston Methodist to offer a master in clinical translation management program to teach students how to turn their ideas into thriving companies.
With Arunachalam’s business background, one might have expected her to follow such a path. But she says she prefers to create solutions and “find the right teams to take those ideas forward.”
Instead, her future is in surgery, which she says, is its own kind of engineering.
“I think they’re very similar," she says. "In engineering, we take apart a problem and put it back together a little better. In surgery you have a system that is malfunctioning and we have to find novel ways to fix it.”
And her and her classmates’ novel discoveries will soon be helping countless patients.
The EnMed program is graduating its first class this week. Photo via HoustonMethodist.org