With graduation drawing near for many students this May, life after Georgia Tech is on everyone’s mind. The options after college are endless, with many students pursuing careers in industry, academia, or research and development. A handful of students go on to pursue medical degrees or masters degrees. A select few, however, seek the ever-elusive doctor of philosophy (Ph.D.) degree. Laura Croft, an alumni of the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering (BME) at Georgia Tech and Emory University, is one of those ambitious few. After graduating from Georgia Tech in May 2007, Croft went to graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley). After six years of hard work and determination, Croft will graduate from UC Berkeley in May with a Ph.D. in Bioengineering.
As Croft points out, the definition of “bioengineering” or “biomedical engineering” differs largely from school to school. “When I was at Tech,” Croft explains, “I thought I had my easy definition down. [Biomedical engineering] was mechanical and electrical engineering applied to clinical problems. But I would not say that holds true for all the research going on in my program at Berkeley.” Berkeley has a very broad definition, Croft explains. Even at the undergraduate level, the program differs significantly from BME in the Coulter Department. “At Tech, you have to take the same classes pretty much up until your Junior year,” Croft recalls, “and at the very end you have different tracks. But at Berkeley, their undergraduate curriculum allows tracks pretty early – it’s much broader.” UC Berkeley’s broad view of bioengineering holds true at the graduate level as well.
In the Bioengineering Ph.D. program at UC Berkeley, each incoming graduate student picks a lab that best suits his or her interests. If the lab finds the student to be a good fit, he or she stays with that same lab through graduation. Laura Croft has been working in the Berkeley Imaging Systems Laboratory, developing imaging technology. “There are a couple projects that are MRI related, but the main focus is magnetic particle imaging, or MPI, which is a new imaging modality… invented in 2005.” Croft proudly explains that UC Berkeley is the only place outside of Europe that currently builds these new MPI scanners; her lab owns two small scanners for mice and rats. The scanners “image a contrast agent of magnetic nanoparticles so, unlike MRI or other modalities, you don’t see the human tissue. You just see the contrast agent.” Inside the scanner, she explains, “there are two permanent magnets that are positioned so to create a magnetic field gradient. This gradient causes a point of zero field in between the two magnets: the field-free point.” That field-free point is scanned around the subject, and a receiver coil picks up the change in the injected magnetic contrast agent as it passes over the point.
For undergraduate students working towards graduate school and a Ph.D., Croft explains that GPA and GRE scores are not everything. Those scores are “how you get into the admissions committee – it’s just a check.” Having worked in Dr. Ajit Yoganathan’s Cardiovascular Fluid Mechanics laboratory during her time as an undergraduate at Georgia Tech, Croft stresses, “undergraduate research is the most helpful. If you can get a co-authored or, ideally, a first-authored publication, you’re definitely going to stand out. The research is the number one thing.” Croft also asserts that Georgia Tech is “definitely a big name, and that helps a lot in the application process,” and that extracurricular activities play a role, as well. “I know [that] when I’m evaluating people, I like to see that they’re involved in things and passionate about something.”
Besides her enrollment in one of the top ten bioengineering schools in the nation and involvement with cutting edge imaging technology, Croft has recently received the prestigious Siebel Scholars Award, which “rewards excellence among the top students at the most prestigious business, bioengineering, and computer science graduate programs and brings together these talented individuals to form a vibrant, active community of leaders who collaborate, communicate, and institute meaningful change” (www.siebelscholars.com). Besides receiving $35,000 towards their final year of studies, Siebel Scholars are able to network and collaborate within the group of impressive recipients as well as with industry professionals who are leaders in their respective fields. Looking to the future, Croft is currently seeking out jobs with companies such as Philips Healthcare, which focuses on imaging and medical devices. Given her recent award, the research she has completed both at Georgia Tech and at UC Berkeley, and her forthcoming Ph.D. degree, Croft is an outstanding model for any student wishing to follow a similar path.