Allen applies ME training to career in medicine
The summer after his sophomore year in mechanical engineering at Illinois, Dr. Bradley Allen (BSME ’07) did an internship at Los Alamos National Laboratory. It would prove to be a turning point in his education.
“I had always planned to get a PhD and likely do some type of fluid mechanics research, but when I was working at the lab, I found myself looking for ways to impact people daily, rather than the more incremental impact researchers make,” Allen said.
He began exploring ways to overlap fluid mechanics with biomedical engineering and various types of physician work. He came back from New Mexico with a desire to go into medicine and began taking pre-med courses in addition to continuing his mechanical engineering studies.
Allen finished his radiology residency at Northwestern University this past June, more than a decade after his internship. He is now a fellow in Cardiothoracic Imaging at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and completing his last year of training.
As a cardiothoracic radiologist and physician-scientist, Allen researches clinical imaging that primarily involves cardiovascular and thoracic MRI. He works with imaging scientists and biomedical engineers to develop and test new MRI sequences and image processing techniques. He also works on 4D flow MRI, which uses phase contrast to visualize and quantify blood flow through the heart in 3D.
Allen’s background in fluid mechanics has been essential in this work.
“I try to use the flow and velocity information in ways that can help diagnose and risk-stratify patients with cardiovascular diseases such as bicuspid aortic valve or aortic dissection,” Allen said.
Allen credits his engineering degree as being the most important decision he has made for his career in healthcare thus far. “Medicine is a dynamic and often fast-paced environment that requires clinicians to consume and process large amounts of data to ultimately make the correct diagnosis,” Allen said. “The methodology used from the first course in statics through more advanced topics such as heat-transfer was ‘given, find, solve’ and I still apply that approach in my clinical and research work.”
He encourages engineering students to recognize the unique skillset they are cultivating. In addition to the more traditional medical routes such as becoming a physician or surgeon, there are many healthcare-related careers engineers can explore, such as biomedical engineering, health IT, and physical therapy. Although the road can be long for medical students—Allen has been in training since completing his undergraduate degree in 2007—the reward is worth the time.
“Our healthcare system needs problem-solvers who are committed to improving (the system) and the lives of our patients,” Allen said. “I think engineers are better prepared to have a feel for complex systems than just about any other profession, and this ability has been important to my career in medicine.”