Integrating Engineering and Biology: A Common Denominator
By: Nina Welding
When Walt Disney introduced “it’s a small world,” it was part of the Pepsi-Cola exhibit at the 1964 World’s Fair. Located at Flushing Meadows Park in Queens, New York, the fair featured more than 140 pavilions on 646 acres and offered dual themes: “Peace through Understanding” and “Man’s Achievements on a Shrinking Globe in an Expanding Universe.” Anyone who attended the 1964 fair and everyone who’s ever taken a child to a Disney park knows the “small world” song. One of its most memorable phrases is, “There’s so much that we share that it’s time we’re aware; it’s a small world after all.” In those words songwriters Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman captured the essence of Disney’s vision for the exhibit and one of the fair’s themes. Forty years later, “it’s a small world” still emphasizes the similarities that people around the world share, the things that make individuals from diverse countries and cultures more alike than different.
To the faculty in the College of Engineering, there is an even more basic denominator, one commonality that must be explored and taught at the undergraduate level if the world is to continue to see the kind of technological progress in the 21st century that it witnessed throughout the 20th: life. Every living organism employs similar biological processes to create and sustain life. Better understanding the molecular biology of those processes, being able to track them, model them, and some day duplicate them, will enhance the quality of life for all the inhabitants of this shrinking globe.”
The integration of engineering with life sciences ... from molecular to ecosystem levels ... is a natural process. As society’s innovators engineers have always been the “builders,” the ones who say “what if” and then work to make a product, service, or situation better. At times that means advancing existing technologies to better meet a need. Often it means pioneering new technologies.
Some may argue that with the cracking of the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) in 1953 by James D. Watson and Francis H.C. Crick, the field of molecular (or cellular) biology is hardly new. Others would counter that the most dramatic benefits of that particular achievement are yet to come and that the leaders of the next technological revolution will be today’s engineering undergraduates as they explore and define the field of bioengineering.
“Molecular biology,” says Mark J. McCready, chair of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, “is one of the most profound revolutions in science and technology in the last 20 years. Two decades ago you couldn’t effectively engineer the life sciences, because you couldn’t write equations to accurately describe the fundamental processes of living systems. It’s only been in the last 20 years that engineers and biologists have been able to quantify events at the cellular level.”
This understanding of living organisms and the chemical operations that sustain life is pivotal to being able to engineer biological solutions for a variety of applications, including medical diagnostics; pharmaceuticals and drug-delivery methods; “biological” tissue for organ implants; natural resource conservation; water quality and treatment; soil enrichment; forest management; food growth, safety, and preservation; and biodegradable products. The number and scope of possible applications are as varied as the spectrum of life.
Yet, most engineering programs do not require its students to take biology courses. In fact, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology may be the only other university in the country that requires all of its engineering students to take a chemical biology course.
“Before researching ways to integrate biology into our engineering curriculum, we formed a faculty committee,” says McCready. The curriculum committee -- Jesus A. Izaguirre, assistant professor of computer science and engineering; Agnes E. Ostafin, assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering; Glen L. Niebur, assistant professor of aerospace and mechanical engineering; Ken D. Sauer, associate professor of electrical engineering; and Jeffrey W. Talley, assistant professor of civil engineering and geological sciences -- found that a few institutions had been modifying their chemistry courses to include aspects of chemical biology, but only for chemical and biomedical engineering majors.
“We didn’t want to cut chemistry completely; it’s a fundamental aspect of engineering,” says McCready. “On the other hand, we believed there was a distinct advantage in requiring all engineering undergraduates to experience a course in molecular biology. And, we’re confident that the chemistry-molecular biology sequence we have designed, like our engineering business program, will differentiate our graduates from students at other institutions.
The new year-long sequence requires undergraduates to take a traditional course in chemistry during the first semester of the freshman year. The molecular biology course is offered during second semester. Working closely with McCready to develop the second course in the sequence were A. Graham Lappin, professor of chemistry and biochemistry, and Francis J. Castellino, the Kleiderer-Pezold Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry and Director of the W.M. Keck Center for Transgene Research. “Faculty in chemistry and biochemistry were instrumental in helping us achieve our goals,” says McCready. “Frank Castellino, in particular, developed an incredible course for our students that will give them a solid grounding in the biological sciences.”
Students in the Class of 2007 were the first engineering undergraduates required to take the new course, Molecular Biology for Engineers. Nathan Stober, a chemical engineering student from Granger, Ind., says,“The course gave me insight into how biological and even nuclear processes are related to chemical reactions. It also gave me an introduction to the everyday functions of cells.”
Stober describes the course as fast-paced but very interesting. “The most important thing I learned from the course and Dr. Castellino [the course instructor],” he says, “was that a basic knowledge of chemistry is crucial to the study of almost all engineering, scientific, or medical fields.”
In addition to providing a strong base in biology for undergraduates, Molecular Biology for Engineers is proving to be a stepping stone to the wide range of bioengineering research opportunities offered throughout the College of Engineering for these first-year students, who would not normally have the opportunity to participate in hands-on research until the end of their sophomore year.
Ailis Tweed-Kent, a classmate of Stober’s and native of Pittsfield, Mass., is applying the knowledge she gained in the course to her work in the Tissue Culture Laboratory. Under the direction of Agnes E. Ostafin, assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, Tweed-Kent is studying osteoblasts, the bone cells responsible for producing calcium. “The work I’m doing here is the first step in the research process,” she says. “By observing the morphology of the cells and using chemical assays, we can gather information on their activity. When we have a basic understanding of how the cells function, then we can move to the next step in the process.
“What’s most important,” says McCready, “is that through this new course, our students begin to understand life science fundamentals in terms of living systems. Engineering has always been effective at describing and designing systems. By establishing this link early in our curriculum, our students can build on it throughout their time at Notre Dame and see how the life sciences connect with the full range of subjects that they study.
McCready believes that this “bio” revolution, especially in the field of health care, is where the next wave of engineering undergraduates will make the largest contributions. “Engineers have created many products and processes that have had a profound impact on health care -- such as drug-delivery patches and insulin pumps -- but many of the developments did not rely on molecular biology. What if someone said, ’We want an artificial pancreas’? Engineers would need to develop ways to sense glucose levels, create a reservoir -- with a means of filling it, and release insulin into the body without killing the patient. Or what about an artificial liver? Or a new heart, not just a mechanical pump but actual biological tissue? The point is that engineers will significantly drive the ‘bio’ revolution, but they cannot do so without first understanding biology. This course sequence is their introduction.”
The College of Engineering also offers additional courses as electives, as well as a variety of opportunities for undergraduate research in bioengineering activities.
According to McCready, the goal of the chemistry-molecular biology course sequence is not to lay the foundation for a degree program in “bioengineering” at Notre Dame. Its purpose is to better prepare engineering undergraduates to be the leaders and innovators of tomorrow, so that they can build a better world ... big or small.
Adapted from SIGNATURES MAGAZINE with permission from the College of Engineering.
Contact Nina Welding at Nina.R.Welding.email@example.com