What I do
After I graduated from Olin, I worked in injury biomechanics at the US Army Aeromedical Research Laboratory for a few years before starting my PhD at Duke. I knew while I was working that I'd want to come back to grad school at some point, and working first gave me the opportunity to get to know the field and the community before I picked a program.
Here at Duke, I'm in the Injury Biomechanics Lab in the Department of Biomedical Engineering. In general, our field focuses on understanding the mechanisms behind traumatic injury. Our lab particularly focuses on the central nervous system, so most of our efforts involve injuries to the head and spine. We work with groups like the Department of Defense, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and athletic organizations to answer questions about injury mechanisms and treatments, the efficacy of protective measures like helmets, and the development of surrogates like computer models and dummies.
To address all these questions, we get to do a little bit of everything - I use soldering irons and scalpels, I code, I do materials testing and medical imaging. I think our lab produces more rounded, generalist PhDs rather than extremely focused specialists, which is a great fit for me! I've definitely felt my Olin "do-learn" background coming through for me many times.
Some of my labmates and me (far right) at a football game. They have sports here!
I was really fortunate to be awarded a National Defense Science and Engineering Grant (NDSEG) fellowship during my second year at Duke. The NDSEG is very similar to the NSF fellowship that more people are familiar with, only sponsored by DoD agencies instead. The award amount (tuition, fees, and stipend), selectivity, and terms are almost identical, and there's no obligation to work for the government afterward. You retain ownership and publication rights to all of your work.
I have heard some misconceptions about who could be a successful candidate. The NDSEG serves "[a]s a means of increasing the number of U.S. citizens and nationals trained in science and engineering disciplines of military importance..." The range of disciplines of military importance is absolutely enormous, from environmentally-friendly materials to computer engineering, basic neuroscience, and gut microbiology (considering the enormous number of people in the military, almost any public health concern could be of interest.) Pretty much anything in the sciences or engineering may qualify, so don't forgo applying just because your area of research doesn't have obvious military applications. When I applied, my research was focused on lumbar spine injuries from repeated loading - something the military would want to protect its members from, but equally relevant to the broader population.
MicroCT image of part of a spine, where the vertebral body meets the intervertebral disc. We use the high-resolution images to detect subtle failures after fatigue testing.
Things I wish I'd known
* Enrolling as a Master's student before a PhD can exclude you from external fellowships like NDSEG. The fellowships are only available for students pursuing doctoral degrees, and you can only apply if you have completed less than two years of full time graduate studies. Some people are never eligible to apply because of the timing between starting an MS and choosing to do the PhD program.
* NDSEG is a wonderful thing to have, but it might not grant complete academic autonomy. I'm very, very grateful for the fellowship and the generous stipend it provides. But, for me, since I was already in a lab, working on projects, I already had a lot of inertia and responsibilities. The lab still has grants that need to be fulfilled, and as a PhD student, you still need funding for materials and equipment. That said, a first-year student with their own NDSEG or NSF funding often has their pick of any program and lab that they want.
* Choose your advisor carefully! I know everyone gives this advice, but having a great relationship with your mentor is so important to having a good grad school experience. Talk to as many people as you can to get a sense of whether his or her students are happy and whether it would be a good fit for you.