Why the future of bioengineering is so bright

Sunset over Los Angeles from Griffiths Observatory
Sunset over Los Angeles from Griffiths Observatory

The last stop on my US tour was the inspirational California Institute of Technology. Based in Pasadena, Caltech has been reported as the top university in the world for the last three years in the Times Higher Education University Global Rankings. Although these rankings usually focus on a particular area I would agree that there is something pretty special about Caltech. The Caltech outlook was epitomized for me by Professor Frances Arnold who said they are not just training students to become scientists or engineers, they are training them to become Nobel Prize winners.

With that ambition laid on the table it was refreshing to hear such a senior academic speak so enthusiastically about her research and the development of her research over time from her mechanical & aerospace engineering roots through chemical engineering to her current research on protein engineering.

Broad the home of the Division of Biology and Biological Engineering at Caltech
Broad the home of the Division of Biology and Biological Engineering at Caltech

I also met with Professor Michael Elowitz while at Caltech, a physicist by background Michael now works in synthetic and systems biology and is the Executive Director of Bioengineering in the Division of Biology and Biological Engineering.

I was interested in the naming of the division as this was the first time that bioengineering had been partnered with biology. Although the meaning of biological engineering at Caltech does have similar origins to MIT. Rather than use any of the MIT or Imperial-inspired triangle or square analogies Professor Elowitz sees biology and bioengineering as two sides of the same coin.

“It’s not the things that will be found out, but the way we approach the problems and the solutions we will come up with.”~ Professor Michael Elowitz

An example of this is Professor Michael Elowitz’s circuit approach to molecular biology. It’s not what the molecules do in isolation it’s what they do in combination, in a physiological environment that he finds most fascinating. With medicine the greatest successes will not be discovering the origins of disease, but will be creating new interventions to assist or in a more ideal world prevent disease before it starts.

“Intellectuals solve problems, geniuses prevent them.” ~Albert Einstein

While speaking to Professor Michael Elowitz  he mentioned Sean R. Eddy’s paper about “Antedisciplinary” Science, published in 2005.  I would recommend reading this article as although now nearly ten years on a lot of the ideas still hold true today. Caltech also supports and encourages individual interdisciplinary people, there seemed to be a lot of fluidity between the loose Department and division structure with academics given the space to follow their research interests. An environment, which given the calibre of the students that attend Caltech, is a healthy and inspiring environment to be in.  

“When I think of new fields in science that have been opened, I don’t think of interdisciplinary teams combining existing skills to solve a defined problem—I think of single interdisciplinary people inventing new ways to look at the world.”~ Sean R. Eddy

In my opinion bioengineers are a prime example of ‘interdisciplinary people’, and the field attracts equally ‘interdisciplinary people’ from other scientific or engineering backgrounds. We need to utilise the tools, technology and techniques that we have and will create for bioengineering to fulfill its potential contribution to society.

This trip has made me wonder what the future bioengineering department would look like. It’s hard to say because the options are endless. I had thought that as bioengineering matures as a discipline bioengineering graduates will fill up our bioengineering departments. I don’t think that will entirely be the case though. As Professor Frances Arnold talked me through her journey to her current protein engineering research something consistently came up in her explanation. “It’s exciting.” Researchers from all fields will be pulled to bioengineering research because it’s intellectually exciting. This diversity doesn’t dilute, it only enriches the discipline.

I was also interested to hear that 15% of the undergraduates at Caltech are majoring in bioengineering or chemical engineering, with students who previously would have chosen biology or mechanical engineering in particular attracted to the new major.

“We are creating the future of engineering, not following it.”~ Professor Frances Arnold

This trip has certainly fueled my excitement, and I believe that now is the time for bioengineering to cement it’s central engineering role, whether it’s from the foundations of biology or a broader combination of sciences, bioengineering is here to stay.

‘Til next post


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