Military, engineering inspire ECE alum Zachary Meade's future in medicine
Ten years ago, when Zachary Meade graduated from high school in Indiana, he had no idea college could even be an option for him.
A difficult family situation that included spending time in foster care and having academic troubles in high school limited his choices.
So, he joined the Army, and it was as a bomb-disposal technician that Meade gained the inspiration to earn an engineering degree and eventually become a doctor.
He graduated from the College of Engineering in May 2018 with a bachelor’s degree in electrical and computer engineering. While at Nebraska, Meade earned numerous honors – he was a Goldwater Scholar and a Pat Tillman Scholar, and received the College’s Al and Dorothy Schewe Leadership Award. In addition to serving in the Nebraska Air National Guard, Meade was also heavily involved in student organizations on Scott Campus: the Student Veteran Organization, Business Professionals of America, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and Society of Women Engineers (SWE) chapters and worked as a tutor to fellow engineering students.
Through all that, Meade graduated with only one grade below an A in his four years in the college.
In May, he completed his first year of graduate school and is working to earn a medical degree from Carle Illinois College of Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is one of 32 future physicians – 16 men and 16 women – in the first class of the world’s first engineering-based college of medicine.
That, Meade said, is quite a departure from when he was a 17-year-old student who nearly didn’t graduate from his Indiana high school, one of many experiences Meade said have been instrumental in his journey.
Tell us about the Carle Illinois College of Medicine program: why is it unique and how does it fit with your career goals?
This program takes people with a creative/innovative mindset who want to make an impact in medicine beyond the traditional route of seeing patients. Being in the military and wanting to give back to wounded veterans, this was a great fusion of engineering and medicine that would allow me to utilize the skills I learned at the College of Engineering and apply them to medical innovations.
Was college on your mind when you made the decision to join the Army?
Absolutely not. Things weren’t easy. I spent some time in foster care and for a time had my grandmother looking after me. I joined the military thinking I would retire from the military. I did not have any plans to go to college. I didn’t take an ACT or SAT. One of the high school guidance counselors confessed to me later that she worried I was going to fail out of high school, that I just wasn’t going to make it. I don’t blame her. I even failed classes in high school.
How did the experience you had in the Army changed your focus as a person and not just professionally or academically?
In every way, it changed who I was. My specific job, being an EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) tech or bomb-squad tech, set me up for success for the technical aspect of the engineering program.
In 2012, President Obama had just declared the draw down and my unit was on deployment to Afghanistan when I got to Fort Polk, Louisiana so I actually didn’t deploy. Even though I wasn’t there, I met people who came back from when my company was on deployment. There were 40 people in my company on deployment and three of them didn’t make it back – Stark, Mays and Garcia. That made a real big impact. I didn’t get to meet any of those individuals, but I got to know them through the rest of the people in my unit.
In bomb-disposal units, we work in teams of three. When a bomb goes off and kills your team leader, a medic can’t go down there and try to save that person’s life. That’s usually another bomb squad tech who has to retrieve his team leader. There’s a lot of wounds in my unit that you couldn’t see until you got to know these people. Seeing how my peers were dealing with those losses, that is what inspires me today.
When did you start thinking about engineering and make the decision to come to Nebraska?
My wife, Paige, is from Omaha. She had applied to Creighton’s pharmacy program and was going there. The options for me were: stay in the Army and be away from her for at least four years or see if there was another way I could live out this dream.
I didn’t want to stop being a first-responder. I wanted to volunteer as a firefighter and EMT. I did that at Boys Town. Then I had to decide what I wanted to do, which was electrical engineering with a focus on prosthetics and other biomedical devices.
How did your time at Nebraska prepare you for this new part of your journey?
The way I was taught to think in my engineering program was very quantitative and analytical. You couldn’t memorize an equation, you had to understand why and how electrons flow through a circuit. There were basic principles you had to grasp in order to move on.
In medicine, it’s a little bit different. There’s a lot more memorizing. There’s a mass amount of diseases. You have to know Disease A has symptoms B, C, and D and you treat it with this medicine.
When it came to some technical topics in medicine, I could do more than just try to memorize, I could think a little deeper and try to understand why. I was able to apply the technical things I learned in electrical engineering classes. When you think about it in those terms, you realize our bodies can be summarized schematically using electrical components, like diodes and capacitors – that can represent organic and human components. For example, I was able to apply the knowledge I learned from circuit analysis to the body to understand why blood pressure would go up or down as our vessels constrict or dilate.
Were there non-academic things you learned at Nebraska that have helped you succeed as a student?
I think the military set me up to succeed, as far as the basic elements of leadership and organization go, but being in college refined that and gave me a more civilian approach. A lot of the organizations and being the team leader for our senior design capstone gave me real-world professional development, time management and team management skills. Engineering work is not like the military, where an officer can yell at someone and tell them to do something. You can’t use that approach.
What’s your timeline for completing this program?
In May 2022, I will graduate with my M.D. I decided to continue my career in the military. I contracted with the Navy to continue as a physician after I graduate. I will be in a position to hopefully innovate and create and, maybe, change policy in the military. I would love to be in a position to change lives on a broader scale, through things like policy. That’s maybe a 20-to-30-year dream. For right now, I want to treat patients on a one-on-one basis and continue to innovate through technology.
There are a lot of engineers who impact the world through politics or by running companies. Are you giving thought to that down the road?
That’s always been in the back of my mind. I look at some great people: Bob McDonald was someone I had the honor of being mentored by at a leadership conference. He was a West Point grad who served as the CEO for Proctor & Gamble and later served as director of veteran affairs. There’s not nearly enough engineers and physicians in Congress as I would like to see. I can see myself someday hoping to change policy on a federal or state level. I don’t know where this will go, but, yeah, I could envision a career there.
Now that you’re in grad school, what advice would you give to engineering students or prospective engineering students who are just starting their careers?
There’s one real tangible piece of advice – you can’t outsmart hard work. When you have these aspirations to go to grad school, I would encourage you to set your goals very high and work harder than everyone else and you will get there. One of the biggest things that helped propel my career at the University of Nebraska forward was involvement in academic research – writing papers and doing original research. That paid dividends far beyond having a part-time job or an internship somewhere.
Submit a Story