BE Board:Dinner Discussion/The Next 20 years of Course 20

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In this dinner discussion, we will consider how Course 20 may evolve, and what impact it may have on society, over the next 20 years. Your moderators at the table will be Kathryn Armstrong, Sri Kosuri and Ben Zeskind.


Historical Perspective

from MIT Biology History page:

In 1936 a committee composed of MIT President Karl T. Compton, Vice President Vannevar Bush,
and Professor John W. M. Bunker proposed that MIT develop a new type of biology--biological
engineering--which would utilize basic knowledge of physics, mathematics, and chemistry, as
well as several fields of engineering... Training in public health was abandoned in 1942 and
the department name was changed to the Department of Biology and Biological Engineering (the
name was changed back in 1994).

In 1939, Compton & Bunker published a paper in the Scientific Monthly titled The Genesis of a Curriculum in Biological Engineering.

Some departments have come and gone over the ages while others have stuck around. What make the difference?

  • Program in Food Technology 1945-1988 (with several name changes in between)
  • Department of General Science 1904-1957 (General Engineering option added in 1920)
  • Physics 1873-present

Key Question

What factors will determine whether Course 20 survives and thrives over the next 20 years, or is abandoned?

Interesting Quotes

Definition of Engineering: the art of organizing and directing men and of controlling forces and materials of nature for the benefit of the human race (Vannevar Bush quoted from the C&B article).

More Questions

Discussion questions inspired by the Compton & Bunker article:

  • Does a department need to teach industrially relevant topics to survive?
  • "The history of science shows often a tendency toward expansion by specialization followed by convergence." Is Biological Engineering a specialization of Biology? Or other engineering?
  • "Convergence of specialized fields comes about when some fundamental discovery discloses the underlying unity..." Or is it a convergence?
  • A perfect biological engineer should also be an expert in several other disciplines, such as physics, chemistry, and mathematics. But "the magnitude of the variety of experimental procedures in the various fields is beyond the comprehension and attainment of one mortal, it would require a superman". Is biological engineering just too daunting to be a major? Will our students be broadly educated but not practically educated?
  • Is cooperation necessary to do good biological engineering? Do we need to teach this to ensure the success of biological engineering?

Impacts on Society

  1. Medicine: prevent, diagnose, cure disease; first pharma, then biotech, then ???
  2. Economy: companies started by graduates, economic impact of discoveries, changes to healthcare economics, effect on research funding
  3. Science: better understanding of biological processes, better tools to study (measure, model, manipulate) biological processes
  4. Society: ethical/legal/social issues raised by advances
  5. Government: changes in operation of FDA/regulatory agencies, NIH

Impacts on MIT

  1. MIT: effect of undergrad major, expansion of space

Other ideas (The future of the field seems related to the future of the department...)

Notes from 1/18/05 brainstorm session about the next 20 years of bioengineering.

  • Will neuroscience (and/or AI) finally take off?
  • Better models/tests of human physiology
  • Infectious diseases
  • Biological solutions to energy problems
  • bionanotechnology
  • individual genomes likely to be "easily" sequenced by 2010
  • drug information content << cell information content.. So do we forsee the end of drug-based therapies?

Quoted paragraph from Leroy Hood, by way of the Economist 9/12/05

TEN years from now, you will not have to spend hours in a doctor's office to complete a comprehensive 
health check-up. Instead, with just a single pin-prick, a nanotechnology device will quickly measure 
and analyse 1,000 proteins in a droplet of your blood. Based on this “molecular fingerprint”, your 
doctor will prescribe drug regimens tailored to your personal state of health that will not only be 
able to reverse many diseases, but will also prevent their manifestation in the first place.

Other recent topics in the Economist about the future of biotechnology

  • 3/9/2006: Organs to order
  • 2/23/06: How to live for ever (Aubrey de Grey)
  • 1/5/06: Fraud, stem cells, and cloning
  • 12/20/05: Deciphering the human epigenome
  • summer2005: Weight-loss drugs
  • World in 2006: Climate change
  • World in 2006: Diseases of the poor world

The July 1 2005 issue of Science has a ton of questions/ideas about the next century of science.

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