Undergraduate BE Board:BE FAQ

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In the past, MIT BE faculty have sometimes received requests for interviews from students interested in biological engineering. Although they would like to honor these requests, professors often have many professional commitments and demands on their time. As a result, we have created this FAQ in the hopes that it will be of help to students who are thinking ahead about potential careers in science and engineering.

Q: What is biological engineering?

A: At heart, BE is the synthesis of fundamental life sciences - such as biology and chemistry - with engineering, with the goal of ultimately not only understanding how biological systems and processes work, but also using this knowledge to develop new technologies, materials, etc. that have applications in many areas, such as medicine and energy. BE is a pioneering, rapidly growing field that is distinguished from biology and more traditional chemical or biomedical engineering by its use of quantitative methods to analyze biological systems from a molecular- and cellular-level perspective. For more details about BE and the department at MIT, refer to the BE homepage.

Q: What research is being done in BE?

A: BE professors at MIT perform cutting-edge research in a wide range of areas, including, for example, tissue engineering, molecular therapeutics, biomechanics, bioMEMS devices, and synthetic biology. A full list of faculty and their research interests can be found under Research.

Q: What are some examples of current projects?

  • Prof. Dane Wittrup's lab – applying protein engineering to develop anti-cancer therapies

IL-2 is a cytokine that plays an important role in the body’s immune response to infection. Antigens introduced into the body bind to receptors on the surface of T-cells and activate them to produce IL-2, which then triggers the expansion of cytotoxic T-cells that are specifically targeted against the antigens. Because T-cells can also recognize and attack tumor cells, IL-2 has been explored as an anti-tumor therapeutic. However, a severe drawback to this method of immunotherapy is systemic toxicity, because IL-2 also activates natural killer (NK) cells.

Fortunately, T-cells express a different form of the IL-2 receptor than NK cells, and the Wittrup lab is working on exploiting this difference to improve the efficacy of IL-2 as an anti-cancer agent. Through protein engineering, they hope to make a modified version of IL-2 that is highly specific for the receptors on T-cells, but not for those on NK cells. This will allow IL-2 to be administered at higher, more effective, doses, but cause less systemic toxicity. Methods of protein engineering used in the Wittrup lab often involve directed evolution, during which repeated rounds of selection are used to isolate binders with desired affinities and specificities.

  • Prof. Scott Manalis’ lab – designing biomolecular detection devices and techniques for single cell analysis

In biology-related research, it is often necessary to take mass measurements on a very small scale – for example, measuring the mass of a cell – with high precision. In order to do this, the Manalis lab takes advantage of the unique physics associated with fluid movement at micro- and nanoscales. They have developed a device based on these principles, called a suspended microchannel resonator (SMR). The SMR contains a tiny resonating cantilever with a microfluidic channel in it, and as particles move through the channel, the frequency of resonance shifts, and this shift can be used to calculate the mass change caused by the presence of the particles.

This technology allows mass measurements to be made in fluids with a resolution that is a million times better than current standards. The lab is currently looking into applying the SMR to study how cell size changes during the division cycle, for example, and the kinetics of binding between small molecules, such as proteins and their ligands.

More descriptions of current BE faculty research can be found on their homepages; links are provided on the Research page.

Q: How do BE professors get to be where they are now?

A: Because BE is a relatively new discipline, many BE professors did not begin their careers studying or planning to become biological engineers. MIT’s department includes faculty whose original education and backgrounds were in many diverse fields, such as chemical engineering, electrical engineering, physics, and chemistry. Indeed, a significant fraction of BE faculty also hold joint appointments in other departments, reflecting the interdisciplinary nature of the field.

What many faculty share when it comes to their career paths, however, is a passion for science, engineering, and research that began early, in their undergraduate years or even earlier, and eventually, a desire to apply their experience towards solving real-world problems in biology, to “do something that makes an impact,” in the words of Professor Douglas Lauffenburger, BE department head (BioTech interview). For some, this drive led them down more standard academic paths, first as graduate students and then as postdocs (Prof. Angela Belcher); others went to medical school for MD-PhDs or worked with physicians (Prof. Jacquin Niles); still others pursued internships or postdocs in industry before coming to MIT (Prof. Dane Wittrup). These varied experiences, by enabling them to raise exciting new questions and tackle tough problems in one field by innovatively applying approaches from a seemingly unrelated field, are arguably a strong contributing factor to MIT BE professors’ advance as leaders in the field.

Finally, in addition to interdisciplinary backgrounds, quite a few professors cite inspirational mentors as key influences and sources of advice and encouragement. A supportive research environment was also important - as Prof. Angela Belcher said, “I was given a lot of independence as well as room to fail, but also the encouragement to pick myself back up again.” [1] Further down the career path, collaborators and colleagues helped with getting started as junior faculty members.

Q: What advice is there for high school students who are considering careers in science and engineering?

“The most important thing about picking a research project is that it is something [you] absolutely love. Is it something you wake up in the middle of the night thinking about and that you’re looking forward to going in to trying to solve the problem or look at it again the next day?” – Prof. Angela Belcher

“When you’re working with great people, you set a direction, you come up with some ideas, and things work themselves.” – Prof. Robert Langer (interview in the Tech)

“Lots of people have creative ideas, but to be successful you need an environment that fosters creativity.” – Prof. Linda Griffith ([MIT News article)

“Do work that is high impact. That’s a big philosophy of mine. Do something that really matters. Don’t reinvent the wheel. If you’re going to do science, do science that is important and that matters.” – Prof. Angela Belcher

“The most important thing you can learn is fundamentals.” – Prof. Robert Langer

“If you’re picking problems that you’re always succeeding in, then you’re picking too easy a problem.” – Prof. Angela Belcher

Q: What does a biological engineer do for work?

A: Many career options are open to biological engineers, in such diverse areas as industry, academia, law, etc. Besides being professors or teachers, biological engineers can also meet the growing need for scientists who can engineer biology in biotech, pharmaceutical, and medical device companies. A significant proportion of biological engineers go on to become doctors or physician-scientists, or work for government agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health. In addition to research- and science-oriented positions, alternative careers that are available include patent law and scientific journalism.

Additional interesting links:

  • MIT BE Department’s homepage
  • Collection of video interviews with various BE faculty about their research
  • Nature editorial with Prof. Robert Langer – includes info about his career path, some career advice, and details of what his typical day is like
  • BioTech interview with Prof. Robert Langer – how his career got started, challenges he faced, some career advice, and his perspective on BE’s biggest challenges, place in the world, and future
  • BioTech interview with Prof. Douglas Lauffenburger – talks about his career path and interest in BE, different challenges faced by BE and chemical engineering, future of BE as a field
  • 2011 interview with Prof. Angela Belcher - very thorough interview including an overview of Prof. Belcher’s current research, her career path and challenges she faced, her perspective on women in science and balancing work and personal life, and her mentorship philosophy; LOTS of career advice for young scientists!
  • Part II of Belcher interview
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