February Student Spotlight - Sean Flannery
1. When did you decide you wanted to pursue a PhD in biomedical engineering?
It’s something I thought about for a while. After my first exposure to research I realized just how deep the field goes and that if I really wanted to make a contribution I needed more than just a bachelor’s degree. I think it was also a good fit for me because I really enjoy research and being hands-on in the lab. I did a co-op that extended my undergrad for a year and that was very research intensive and sealed the deal for me.
2. What has been the proudest accomplishment of your time in graduate school, or a particular “high point”?
I haven’t been in grad school very long yet, so I don’t know if I can highlight one particular accomplishment yet, but I can talk about one from undergrad. During my co-op I worked on many projects but one of the most interesting to me involved helping a graduate student build a surgical device for hernia repair surgery. It was my first exposure to the translational medicine approach that is becoming very popular. We were working hands-on with surgeons and clinicians to build a device that fit their needs. We watched surgeries to see what their process is like and what needs they had. That was one of the first engineering research experiences that I was deeply involved in and I’m proud of being able to help surgeons help people.
3. What has been the biggest challenge or frustration during grad school?
There has definitely been a few challenges. When you first start out, building momentum is challenging because you have a lot of introductory things to do. There are many certifications you have to get and you have to get to know the people already in the lab. Then it’s important to become very well-informed on the state of research in the field to help determine where you want to take your own research. One of the biggest technical challenges I faced was having to look at a MatLab code that a previous student had made and learn how it worked, which felt like learning another language, and then validate it and make sure it worked for our data processing and add more functionality.
4. Have you ever done an experiment that didn’t work?
Yes, there’s been several. I haven’t done much experimentation in grad school yet, but in the past working with immunohistochemistry, I’d have to repeat experiments several times to get them to work. I had similar difficulties with qPCR. Especially with biological systems there is always a lot of iterating and repeating.
5. How did you choose your mentor?
It was a combination of things. First I talked with my mentors in undergrad a lot to find out what they look for in PhD students, but also what they were looking for when they went through the process of choosing their own PhD mentors. I learned a lot about what both sides are looking for and then had to really think about what I wanted. I decided I wanted to work with someone who is well-positioned in their field, very knowledgeable, and passionate about what their doing. I feel like meshing personality-wise is also pretty important because your going to be in that lab for a long time so you need to make sure you get along with that person. I also looked into what resources the program had to offer and Brown had to offer. There are a lot of factors that went into it.
6. How was your project(s) chosen for grad school research? Did you get to pick or was a project assigned to you?
I don’t exactly know what my project will be yet, but Dr. Fleming and I have talked about it a little bit and concluded there are a few routes I could take with my project. I came over the summer to start research early and I could carry on with research I started in the summer, which was the MatLab data processing or I could take on a project relating to sterilization techniques with an ACL repair clinical trial that the lab is working on. There are a few other projects too. It’s a bit early to decide but I’ve definitely started thinking about it.
7. What three qualities do you think are most important for someone entering graduate school?
You need to be passionate about what you’re doing, have a strong work ethic, and be self-motivated
8. Where do you hope for your career to be in 5-10 years?
In five years I hope to have completed my PhD and right now I’m leaning towards going into industry. There are so many medical device companies out there doing great things and, especially after my experience with my co-op, I would love to be able to continue to create devices that help doctors and patients.