Graduate students appreciate choices in engineering

Mackenzie Wheeler performs mechanical practice tests on control materials for her work on placental membranes. (ECU photo by Dr. Michelle Oyen)

Students participating in East Carolina University’s two Department of Engineering master’s degree programs are finding satisfaction regardless of which program they take or how they choose to enter them.

The Master of Science in biomedical engineering offered its first courses in 2015 with five students graduating in 2017 and more than a dozen since. In addition, a new master’s degree program in mechanical engineering began in 2019.

Students can begin both programs in a traditional way, earning a bachelor’s degree and then beginning a master’s program, or they can enroll in the accelerated Bachelor of Science plus Master of Science (BSMS) program.

Mackenzie Wheeler of Pikeville chose the latter option at the suggestion of her faculty advisor, Dr. Michelle Oyen, an associate professor in the Department of Engineering.

“After exploring the great benefits of continuing my education and realizing I could obtain another degree in simply one extra year of school, I was sold,” Wheeler said. “By furthering my education, I feel confident ECU will provide me with a deeper level of understanding, not only within my biomedical concentration but the field of engineering as a whole.”

To be eligible for the BSMS accelerated program, Wheeler took undergraduate courses during the summers so she could take some graduate courses in her senior year. She also began assisting Oyen with research, which she said increased her love for the work she was doing.

“This enabled me to get a head start on work that could potentially be used for my thesis if I decided to continue my education and earn my master’s degree,” Wheeler said.

Patricia “Tricia” Malcolm Butler of Goldsboro also chose the program. She’s currently in her second year of graduate school.

“Biomedical engineering was the right engineering discipline for me because I enjoy learning about the human body, and I really like biomechanics,” Butler said. “It is also enjoyable learning about devices that can improve a person’s quality of life.”

Dr. Sunghan Kim

Dr. Sunghan Kim, an associate professor and the department’s graduate program director, said the majority of the department’s graduate students receive funding to support their education.

“Currently, there are 22 graduate students,” Kim said. “Fourteen out of 22 students are being supported via graduate assistantship or research assistantship.”

ECU’s Graduate School provides some of the funding for assistantships, while faculty often obtain grants and other funding sources to hire student research assistants. About $15.4 million have been awarded to graduate faculty since the fall of 2015.

During this academic year, 19 students have been awarded grants from ECU’s Division of Research, Economic Development and Engagement to assist faculty with research projects.

Kim said a 2016-17 survey found that four of the five graduates of the new program were very satisfied. Most were also satisfied with their thesis research projects that academic year. Since the beginning of the program, an average of 30 presentations and posters by students and 50 research journal articles and conference papers by faculty have been produced, Kim said.

Will Miller, a graduate student, uses a 3D printer in a lab to make parts for microfluidic devices. (ECU photo by Dr. Michelle Oyen)

Along with the BSMS program, some graduate courses are now available to more students.

“Both MSBE and MSME programs now have 5000-level courses, which can be taken by undergraduate students as technical electives,” Kim said.

Butler is looking forward to a career teaching engineering at a university or community college after she graduates in May.

“My favorite aspect of East Carolina University’s engineering graduate program is the amazing faculty,” she said. “I have had so much support and guidance here that I would not have received anywhere else.”

Wheeler said she’s interested in seeking a career as an engineer in the medical field.

“I have a strong passion for pregnancies, babies and children,” she said, “so I would love to continue, possibly researching in this field or working with such patients in a hospital or a clinical setting.”

— By Margaret Fisher