Meet Shruthi Shankar: A Biomedical Engineer with a Big Heart

Outstanding Female Engineering Award Winner Shruthi Shankar

On the day she started an internship at Boston Scientific, Shruthi Shankar was given a shirt inscribed with the company’s motto: “If you have the power to improve lives, share it!”

Shruthi loved that motto, since it summed up why loves her major.

“Biomedical engineering combines engineering with the medical sciences to create devices that improve the quality of life for patients,” says Shruthi, a senior at NJIT. “And that’s what I want to devote my life to.”

She’s off to a good start. In the fall, Shruthi will begin working on a master’s degree in biomedical engineering at John’s Hopkins University. And when she finishes that degree, she intends to get another: an MBA. Having both degrees, she hopes, will help her achieve her long term goal: To become a senior executive for a global firm that designs biomedical devices to helps patients -- especially patients who have heart problems. 

She wants to be a leader -- an executive -- and her time at NJIT has trained her to be just that.  In the words of William Hunter, chairman of the Biomedical Engineering Department, “Shruthi has been one of the most highly involved student leaders in engineering activities that I’ve ever encountered.”

To list all of her leadership roles would fill five pages, but to encapsulate, Shruthi was president of Phi Eta Sigma; president of the Society of Women Engineers; president of Tau Beta Pi; and president of Omicron Delta Kappa. She’s been awarded five scholarships; conducted major research at NJIT and, along with interning at Boston Scientific Corporation, did another internship at the nationally prominent Kessler Rehabilitation Center.  Most recently, the Newark College of Engineering gave her the Madame Mau Outstanding Female Engineering Award.  In the below interview, Shruthi talks about her major, her leadership roles, her research and how she was able to accomplish so much at NJIT.

Can you begin by talking about your internship at Boston Scientific?
I’m grateful to NJIT for helping me assume leadership roles, which have helped me in so many ways. For instance, as president of our chapter of the Society of Women Engineers, I was invited to the society’s National Conference, which also included a career fair. And at the fair I had the chance to talk to Boston Scientific representatives about internships.  It sounded like a dream come true when, in the summer of 2007, they offered an internship. I was based at Cardiac Rhythm Management (CRM), a Boston Scientific division in St. Paul, Minnesota. The CRM division focuses on designing pacemakers, defibrillators and leads that connect the devices to the heart.

And was it during that internship that you saw how rewarding a career in biomedical engineering can be?
Absolutely! What drove that home to me was a program that Boston Scientific sponsored called “Quality Days.” It was the day when the employees could see what they were working towards because they got to meet patients who had Boston Scientific products implanted in them. For an hour and a half, the employees sat raptly as the patients told their stories. Tears could be seen rolling down the cheeks of employees and the satisfaction that was displayed across their faces was priceless. The extra time they had taken to double check calculations or to re-evaluate specifications of devices now all seemed worthwhile to the employees. That’s because they could see the results of their work reflected in the happy faces of the patients who sat before them. At that point, specifications became more than just numbers; they became values that contributed to the well-being of other human beings. That satisfaction I received over the summer, as an intern there, is what I am now working towards. I want to design devices that will improve the quality of patient’s lives.

Was your internship at Kessler equally inspiring?
Oh yes, and again NJIT helped me get that internship. One of my professors suggested I talk to a doctor at Kessler about an internship, and it eventually worked out and I was hired. I worked in the Human Performance and Motion Analysis lab. Walking, running, and standing are movements that most people take for granted. I was one of those people -- until I worked with patients at the Kessler Rehabilitation Institute who were paralyzed from the waist down. During the summer, I helped with the experiments on gait analysis that were performed on patients who had spinal cord injuries or strokes. Learning how to use the various devices was educational, but what inspired me was the satisfaction that could be seen in the patients treated at the center. They knew that the research being conducted could not help them regain their abilities, but the enthusiasm they showed about helping others get well was extremely moving. A multitude of medical advances have been made possible because of generous people like that who put the well-being of others before themselves. I’m impressed by that kind of selflessness, and I very much want to be a part of people who think like that.

You started doing research here when you were a freshman? Can you talk about that?
The summer after my freshman year, I wanted to learn more about the equipment used in the biomedical labs and to begin to learn about research. My parents suggested I talk to Professor Richard Foulds and try to arrange it so that I could work with an NJIT graduate student for a few weeks in the summer. Professor Foulds, an inspirational professor whose passion for the biomed field encouraged me so much, helped arrange that and it turned out to have been a rewarding experience. I was exposed to the different types of data collection systems and learned how to write code in two programs: MATLAB and Labview. What I learned that summer helped me the following summer, when I worked as an intern at the Kessler Rehabilitation Institute. I’m now also doing an independent research project with Professor Foulds. I’m characterizing a joystick that can be used to help children who have cerebral palsy strengthen their weak limbs. 

What motivates you to succeed academically?
My motivation to be a good student comes from my desire to be successful. My parents have always supported me and encouraged me concentrate on academic excellence and to achieve my goals. My father’s motto is, “Be the best in whatever you do,” and I try to live up to that. My parents are excellent role models. My father worked very hard and is now Senior Vice President of HCL, a software company. And my mother is now working on her Ph.D. in chemistry at Rutgers. She analyzes soil from Mars as well as iron meteorites.  They are hard workers and they’ve also encouraged me to do the same.    

Your family moved a lot when you were young. What effect did that have on you?
I was born in India and lived there until I was 3 years old. Then my family moved to Dubai for my father’s job and I lived there till I was 10. A year later we moved to America and have been here ever since. The cultures of these radically different nations taught me to be more open to the practices and traditions of different cultures. I have gained an appreciation not only for Hinduism, but also Islam and Christianity. With respect to college, I have met many international students who had trouble acclimating to American culture. Because of my multi-cultural background, I never had that problem. I was able to communicate with my peers and understand their perspective for whatever tasks or group projects we worked on together. 

What will you specialize in at Johns Hopkins?
I’m excited about going to Johns Hopkins in the fall of 2008. It’s the top university in the nation for biomedical engineering, and I can’t wait to be a part of that elite group. After doing an internship in Boston Scientific, I realized that I have a strong inclination towards cardiac mechanics and so I’d like to do my masters’ in that field. Obtaining my masters’ degree will give me a more complete understanding of biomedical engineering and provide me with the edge to compete for top positions in companies.

What do you plan do to after Hopkins?
My long term goal is to become a senior executive in a global corporation engaged in biomechanics. That will give me the authority to design biomechanical products and services that ill improve the lives of patients. I also want to specialize in cardio-related systems. To achieve this, I’ve defined short term goals, such as getting my master’s in biomechanics at Hopkins. After that, I aim to get an MBA from an elite school such as the Wharton Business School as well as work internships at a few global companies. All of this will of course help me achieve my goal of becoming a senior executive who will oversee a company that builds devices to help patients live better, pain-free lives with more movement, better health and thus more happiness.  

What have been some of your favorite NJIT moments?
Since I’m a student at the Albert Dorman Honors College, I especially enjoyed the challenging honors classes and peer group, which helped the honors students make the most of the Honors College experience. From the honors colloquiums to the honors community service requirement, I was able to give back to the community as well as expand my knowledge. I also spent a lot of time in the Honors College Lounge, a really convenient place to do homework with other honors students. Through the Society of Women Engineers, I discovered the Murray Center for Women and Technology, which was my favorite place to be in between classes. I have made some of my best friends at the Women’s Center and enjoyed the company of the different types of students (from different majors) that hang out there. The environment is extremely warm and inviting.

What do you feel was your biggest accomplishment at NJIT?
When I graduated high school in 2004 as salutatorian, I was extremely happy about attending NJIT. And today I know that I made the right decision. NJIT has given me a solid foundation that will help me grow as a person with a strong character and sense of civic duty. When I received the acceptance letter from Johns Hopkins University, I felt that all the hard work and time I invested at NJIT was worth it. That acceptance has become my proudest accomplishment, and I could not have done it with without my NJIT family. I have received incredible support from the Newark College of Engineering (the Biomedical Engineering Department), the Honors College, the Murray Center and the Leadership Center. They all had such a big effect on shaping my future and I will miss them dearly. There are also so many advisers who have become friends over the past years, and I will miss them, too. I feel prepared to overcome any challenges I may face because NJIT has taught me how to be strong and how to take on challenges with a smile. I have truly enjoyed my years at NJIT and have tried to make use of every opportunity. It is an excellent university that has a lot to offer.

(By Robert Florida, University Web Services)