Chemical Engineers in Medical School

Chemical engineering and pre-medicine students often find themselves sitting side-by-side in science elective courses. But, eventually, we reach a fork in the road that separates us from our pre-med friends. As chemical engineers, we progress to thermodynamics and mass transfer courses, while our counterparts study anatomy and molecular biology.

The divide between these two paths, however, does not leave us particularly far apart, making chemical engineering, perhaps surprisingly, a great foundation for medical school. Consider the parallels and follow this advice if you are a chemical engineer contemplating medical school.

The parallels

While chemical engineering considers a process within a facility, medicine looks at processes within our bodies. If we look at our bodies through the lens of chemical engineering, very simply, our bodies have a pump (the heart) that circulates a colloidal mixture (our blood) to obtain certain solutes (oxygen from our breath and nutrients from our food) and remove toxins via filters (our kidneys).

This is simplistic, but chemical engineering principles also come up as we look at more specific areas of medicine. In mass transfer, we learned about partitioning coefficients — a ratio that helps quantify the relationship of a particular solute to two fluids to determine which phase will have the greatest concentration of solute. Recall your knowledge of partitioning coefficients and consider: If you were being put to sleep for wisdom teeth removal, would the anesthesiologist use nitrous oxide or desflurane? Anesthesiologists use partitioning coefficients to select inhaled anesthetics. The doctor would most likely use nitrous oxide in this instance, because the simple and fast procedure would require a drug with a low partitioning coefficient, allowing it to act quickly and leaving less N2O solute lingering in the blood for fast patient recovery.

Similar "tunes"

More parallels are revealed if we look into the methods our bodies use to remain in sync. Chemical processes use tuning controllers, and our bodies use much the same methods. While we do not visit a central control room to adjust coefficients in a proportional-integral-derivative (PID) controller, to maintain equilibrium, our body is constantly changing the way it “tunes” its controls. Our bodies express receptors and channels on our cell membranes.

This concept is best illustrated if you consider a disease, such as Type 2 diabetes, and how it affects this control loop, i.e., controlling blood sugar. If we inadvertently increased the setpoint signal, in this case the amount of insulin required to maintain a healthy level of glucose, at one of its many controllers, acetyl-CoA carboxylase, it creates an error in the feedback loop. Over time, the setpoint required to maintain a healthy level of blood sugar increases, and our body drives toward producing more insulin. Unfortunately, insulin insensitivity increases and blood sugar rises (i.e., hyperglycemia).

Some examples

These are just a few examples of the ways a chemical engineering background can help us understand important concepts in medical school. Larger topics are also easier to grasp, for example:

  • The heart uses a variable-frequency drive to optimize its work as a pump; multiple factors affect the contractibility of the heart to increase or decrease the work on the blood.
  • Blood vessel resistance attenuates backpressure (i.e., afterload) with changes in arterial diameter as the smooth muscles relax. Blood pressure medications, such as calcium channel blockers, take advantage of this mechanism.
  • The rate of filtration in the kidneys fluctuates with blood pressure. Pressure gradients increase the rate of mass transfer between the membranes in the portion of the kidney called the Bowman’s capsule.

The advice 

Understanding the fundamental concepts in science prior to learning the big picture helps us comprehend complicated topics. Medical school offers unique challenges, as the field never ceases to transform and continually grow. This makes learning the basic concepts in your undergraduate courses even more vital to be ready for what comes next.

As technology continues to advance, there is a growing need for technology-literate healthcare workers to bridge the two fields. Continue to build upon your programming and statistical knowledge, even if it does not always seem correlated with your end goal of medicine. As we continue to develop technology, it will undoubtedly get integrated into medical practices, such as the use of robotic-assisted surgeries and electronic medical records.

Prevalence, pathogenesis, and treatment of diseases are among some of the most important issues to understand in treating patients. A background in fluid dynamics, controls, and mass transfer, afforded by engineering education, makes pathology and physiology of diseases much clearer, and will help you to avoid the need for rote memorization of facts. While you might have heard that learning in medical school is like drinking water from a firehose, understanding the underlying scientific basics can make it more like drinking water from a pressure washer.

This article originally appeared in the YPOV column in the September 2019 issue of CEP. Members have access online to complete issues, including a vast, searchable archive of back-issues found at