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Electrical engineer plugs into biotech

What does an electrical engineer really do? For technologist Andy Gelbert, who works for the Norwood-based start-up Molecular Biometrics, it means wearing many hats, from software developer to IT help go-to guy. Gelbert is working on the software interface for a diagnostic tool that has applications in personalized medicine, but he also picks up a voltmeter occasionally to check the hardware in a device. Gelbert, who is building the software for an instrument that can gauge the viability of embryos for IVF transplant, likes to joke that, as a weary father of lively twins, his job is to help others avoid double trouble. “My wife and I had twins through IVF, so I have a personal connection to my work. We should have a picture of the Octomom as a poster child in terms of what we’re trying to avoid,” says Gelbert, who likes working for this newly minted biotech company because of the opportunity to take on many roles, not just pure engineering.

Without electrical engineers like Gelbert, there would be no cell phones (invented by Martin Cooper), supercomputers (Seymour Roger Cray), or, for all you Apple fans, iPods (Steve Wozniak). Engineers hold roughly 1.5 million jobs, with about 20 percent in electrical engineering. With the slow-growing manufacturing sector, hiring for electrical engineers has been sluggish, but the Obama administration stimulus package is expected to create opportunities in alternative energy, infrastructure, and the environment. And many engineers expand outside their field of training. “Engineering is a great jumping off point,” says Gelbert. “Most of my engineering college buddies are not in the field anymore. They get MBAs and go into another business or own their own companies.”

Q: You’re an electrical engineer, but doing a lot of software development. How did that evolve?
A: With any technical degree you get these days, it helps to learn something about software – it makes you more valuable. I used to make fun of my software friends and think it was a wimpy way out, but I found it was a lucrative career avenue. Any piece of hardware needs software in order to control it.

Q: What’s your typical day like?
A: It’s very varied. I might be working internally with the scientific staff to make sure software is processing the information correctly, and then, in the next hour, talk to marketing to be sure that we’re sending the right message with how we communicate information to the users. I also touch base with manufacturing, because there might be some requirements on how the build the software. And of course, there is a regulatory component, as well as testing the software.

Q: Your resume lists expertise in various computer languages, Web servers and databases. It’s all Greek to me, though.
A: There are two big camps, the Microsoft technologies and the Java side. It’s not realistic to be an expert in all of them. My best advice is to pick one and become very adapt at it.

Q: Were you born to be an engineer?
A: Actually, I’m supposed to be a dentist. My father and grandfather are dentists, and my cousin is an orthodontist. But I had no interest in it. As a kid, I was always interested in electricity and almost blew up the house with a battery-operated kit that I plugged into house electrical outlets. Big sparks flew and the lights dimmed in the kitchen. I’ve always been interested in how things work.

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