Mechanical engineering is one of the broadest engineering disciplines. The versatile degree allows for students to become cross-functional engineers, the leaders in interdisciplinary industries aiming to improve society.
Alumnus Michael Lewis (MechEngr’00) took interdisciplinary to the next level. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and working at Boeing for a year, he discovered another way to help people – through medicine.
Lewis is now a surgeon in the Children’s Heart Center at Lund University Hospital in Sweden. While the path he took with his engineering degree was nontraditional, Lewis credits the opportunities at the University of Colorado Boulder for setting him up for success.
Read more about Lewis’ career from mechanical engineer to pediatric heart surgeon in the Q&A below.
What inspired you to study mechanical engineering before medicine?
I didn’t think I was going to be an engineer right away. I originally wanted to study psychology but quickly learned that wasn’t for me. I also loved music, so I changed my major to classical guitar for a few semesters. I think I must have set the record for credits and classes!
I remember sitting down at two distinct points in my life, trying to figure out what I liked and wanted to be. The first time was in the student union at CU Boulder. I knew I loved math, science and problem-solving, and applying those studies to real-world issues. That led me to engineering. I figured mechanical engineering was very broad and that I could use that education in various industries.
The second talk I had with myself was in my apartment in Boulder. I thought to myself, “Is there anything else I like doing?” I realized I like being with people and solving problems for humanity. That’s when the lightbulb went off. I knew I wanted to be a doctor. I volunteered at the student health center and realized it was something I could do.
Even with that realization, I still wanted to use my engineering degree. I worked for Boeing as a design engineer for a year and successfully sent two projects to space. It was great and I thought I was well prepared to work, but I knew wanted to pursue medicine. I attended Chicago Medical School, completed my residency and fellowships in the Midwest and on the East Coast, and finished in 2014. My family moved to Sweden where my wife and I now both work at Lund University Hospital.
What is the value of having a mechanical engineering degree as a surgeon?
If you have ever been in modern medicine – specifically inside an operating room – you can see that there are mechanical engineering needs all over the place. Everything from the heart-lung machine to the sutures that we use have been meticulously engineered. You really become aware of how useful and necessary these tools are to improve and save the patient’s life.
Plus, the basic physiology of the human body and the cardiovascular system is better understood when thinking about the changes in fluid dynamics with temperature or the changes a heart goes through with pressure and volume. My mechanical engineering education has been incredibly useful for developing my skills as a doctor and pediatric heart surgeon.
Both engineering and medicine aim to solve societal challenges. Do you view your interdisciplinary career path through that lens?
Every day. There are times when that idea can get lost in the stress of the work, but then you get a letter from a parent or child that you have operated on. You get a note from a medical student or nurse that you have helped. You see that you’ve made a difference.
I am a bit of an idealist and I think that’s what has made it possible to take this long loop to becoming a doctor. That is why I chose this career and continue to do it today.
What advice do you have for current mechanical engineering students?
Sit down and talk with yourself about what you want out of life. Irrespective of how narrow or broad you want to be as a mechanical engineer, there are options out there for everybody. That will play into every choice you make personally and professionally. Think about where you want to live, how you want to spend your time and what sort of projects do you want to work on. Make a list of the things that are important to you and start there.