Charley Rustad began his academic career at the University of Wisconsin Madison, studying aerospace engineering and mechanics. During his freshman year, he was exposed to the medical device industry while helping build accessibility furniture. The experience inspired him so much that he made the decision to move back to Minnesota where he could pursue more opportunities to intern and network within the medical tech market.
Today, four months after graduation, he’s working fulltime in his field, doing just what he set out to do: engineering devices to help improve the lives of others.
We recently spoke with Rustad to learn all about his journey from intern to engineer, and the lessons he learned along the way.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
So Charley, you recently graduated from the University of Minnesota with a degree in Aerospace Engineering and Mechanics. What did you do then?
Rustad: After I graduated in May, I began one final internship at Boston Scientific in Maple Grove as a design assurance intern in the Interventional Cardiology business unit, where I worked on both a minimally-invasive mitral valve repair device and circulatory support pump. Those experiences helped me broaden my network at the company and further refine my interests within medical devices.
Where are you working now? What is your job title and what are some of your responsibilities?
Rustad: In August, I took a job as a R&D engineer working on the WATCHMAN stroke-prevention device also within the Interventional Cardiology business. In this role, I support a variety of projects on the commercially-released generations of the device. The scope of sustaining R&D is quite broad – we work closely with design assurance, process development, manufacturing, as well as the new product development R&D teams. Recently I’ve been working on test method development, design and documentation updates, and some manufacturing and operations process improvements.
How does this job compare to the work you did as an intern?
Rustad: I’m doing the same exact work I was doing as an intern, just with less supervision and more influence on the direction of the projects! I run into things often that I had the chance to do as an intern, or at least something similar. While I still have plenty to learn and probably always will, my time as an intern has helped me start in a full-time role feeling comfortable in working in a team with others and asking for help when I need it.
Tell us about your SciTech internship experiences. Where did you work previously?
Rustad: My first internship was through SciTech at a small company in Mendota Heights, Minnesota, called Tower Solutions. There I worked as a mechanical engineering intern and was able to immediately begin work on making drawing updates, designing parts and assemblies of my own and building prototype towers. I obtained a ton of real-world CAD experience and began to understand design for manufacturability and assembly.
My next internship I also found through SciTech at a medical device startup in St. Paul called Abilitech Medical. There I had the chance to work alongside a highly-experienced engineering team on a powered orthotic device (like an exoskeleton!) for the arm. This was my first foray into the medical device industry and I was able to quickly confirm for myself that this was an industry I could make a career in.
What skills did you develop during that time?
Rustad: I had the opportunity to create and perform device verification tests, understand what goes into medical device documentation, and see how important device quality and patient safety was in every aspect of the engineering process. This all took place in a start-up environment where things moved quickly; I was able to experience many aspects of the product design lifecycle in only 8 months! I talked about this a little already, but my final internship was at Boston Scientific. I found people really appreciated my time at small companies there, and I had the opportunity to test things out at an international company. Toward the conclusion of that internship, I got the opportunity to stick around with an offer for my current role, and was thrilled to take it.
What advice would you give to engineering and aerospace students who are looking to secure internships and full-time work in their industries?
Rustad: Seek out a mentor in the field you’re interested in! There is no better way to understand what a job is like than by talking to someone who does it every day. I’ve found that the vast majority of people really enjoy talking about their jobs and jump at the chance to talk to someone with genuine interest in their line of work. I made good connections like this through family friends, the U’s mentor-match program, and through my internships. It takes effort and is a learned skill, but I found it to be well worth it.
Is there anything we haven’t covered that you’d like to mention?
Rustad: This is something I understood far too late, but I think it’s really important for any undergraduate student to never undervalue their professional and educational experiences. Even if the experience doesn’t perfectly align with where you want to go in the future, it’s both productive and therapeutic to recognize the transferable skills you’re developing to bring up in the next interview or application. Especially as a student or recent graduate who may not have prior experience in the particular field, I have found that employers respond well when I can detail the value of my past experiences and how they’re helpful for the direction I want to go. This worked well for me as I bounced between schools, majors, and industries.