Faculty Spotlight: Prof. Thomas Heldt

Medical Engineering Professor Finds Rewards in Teaching Industry Professionals

Thomas Heldt is an Associate Professor in the Institute for Medical Engineering and Science and the Department of Electrical Engineering & Computer Science at MIT. He joined MIT in 2013 and has been teaching quantitative physiology to undergraduate and graduate students alongside Professor Roger Mark ever since. But three years ago, the duo – along with Prof. George Verghese – decided to add a new course to their repertoire – this time, aimed at industry professionals. 

“Through my various research projects, I was interacting directly with software and hardware engineers, and I noticed that the kind of material we teach students in our undergraduate and graduate classes would benefit professional engineers as well – especially the ones who work at the intersection of technology and healthcare,” said Heldt.  

That’s when Heldt decided to engage with MIT Professional Education to launch the Short Program (SP) course: Quantitative Cardiorespiratory Physiology and Clinical Applications for Engineers. Now, each summer, engineers travel to MIT from Malaysia, Japan, Argentina, and various other countries around the world to attend the one-week class. Some are employed by large medical device or technology corporations. Others work at smaller start-ups or are looking to make a career change. Regardless of their background, Heldt says he always finds it to be a great experience. 

“Most of the people who come have spent years in industry, so it’s interesting to learn about the different applications they are interested in and thinking about,” said Heldt. “I also enjoy teaching professionals because of the questions they ask. They seem to come from a slightly different perspective, and are usually focused on solving very specific problems that they are facing in their own work.” 

Content for the SP course is essentially the same as undergraduate and graduate courses – only tailored, condensed, and practical.

“I think the most exciting thing is seeing real-world medical data of a lot of conditions, some of them really rare – it’s hard to see them anywhere else – and trying to understand them from both aspects,” said a biomedical engineer from Analog Devices.

What Heldt usually teaches over the course of a month or two in graduate and undergraduate courses, he says he covers in a matter of days in the professional education course. The density with which information is being transferred makes for an intense experience for students, but Heldt says he is always astonished by their level of participation.

“This isn’t just a week away from the office. We teach from 8:30 in the morning until 5:30 in the afternoon, and even in the breaks people are going to the board trying to gain clarification. That lasts up until the very last day. As an educator, it’s extremely rewarding,” said Heldt. 

Heldt says he hopes that by taking the Short Programs class, engineers will gain a deeper understanding of the physiology of the cardiovascular and respiratory systems, and that an improved understanding will in turn result in better healthcare technologies and products. He also feels MIT has a lot to contribute when it comes to applying engineering and science knowledge to healthcare – not just by teaching students who come to MIT, but by educating those who are trying to solve healthcare problems in industry. He sees healthcare-related SP courses as an opportunity to help spark the next wave of medical innovation.