Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Biological Engineering...what is it?

I’ve always found it difficult to verbally describe what biological engineering is whenever people ask. Sure, it’s easy to say that it is a genre of engineering with a focus on biological applications, but that’s vague and essentially only restating the name in different words. A slightly more insightful way of putting it could be to say that it is a focus on solving and answering biological problems and questions with techniques unique to engineering.

And so, I will draw on yet another life lesson gleaned from Sesame Street: the effective use of show-and-tell (, as hosted by Ernie. With the use of a few specific examples, the scope of biological engineering could be more readily elucidated and understood by the average layperson.

I spent Thanksgiving break this year in Texas. While I was there, I wanted to show my family the work that I had been doing throughout this school year. I had many course 20 projects to show them. First, I described the design project I completed in 20.320 (Biomolecular and Cellular Systems). I showed them the liposome signaling system that I devised, the mathematical equations that modeled the relationships within that system, and the MATLAB code that I wrote to implement its functionality. I also explained the modules that I had been working on within 20.109. I talked about engineering plasmids as a way to monitor homologous recombination of DNA, using bacteria to take photographs, and most recently, making solar cells with the help of bacteriophage. By using the models and figures/images and data that I had collected through these projects, I was able to show and tell them what biological engineering meant to me: the ability to design and engineer biological components and systems to solve problems, serve useful functions, or even just to demonstrate “cool” and novel science.

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