Saturday, December 6, 2014

Superhumans, super-phage, spider venom and biological engineering

Whenever I visit the bank in my hometown, by some random chance I always see the same teller. He’s very nice and personable, makes great jokes, remembers I’m majoring in biological engineering at MIT, and every time without fail asks me if I’ve built a superhuman / super-robot / super-alien or something “super” yet. He’s so enthusiastic about it that I can’t just say no, so I play along and say something to the effect of no, but I’m working on it.

I’ll be home in about two weeks, and this time I can say yes to the “super” question. I’ve made super-E. coli that can make bacterial photographs and super-viruses that are part of a system that can harness solar light and turn it into energy. I’m also in the process of designing a project with Laila to make super-plants that encode for pesticides in somatic cells rather than germ cells, so there is less risk of humans and other non-targeted species ingesting pesticides and no mating between genetically modified and wild-type species.

I’m actually very excited to go home after this semester and not just tell the bank teller about the “super” things I’ve done in the past 4 months, but also tell my friends and family what I’ve been up to. What makes me excited to tell them is that everything I’ve learned this semester is so practical and finally beyond the GIR-type classes, and more importantly that everyone is genuinely excited to hear about my studies. That’s the thing with biological engineering—the name itself sounds cool (it’s pretty much a buzz word without really trying to be one), and in fact it is cool, so even my non-scientist friends and family love to hear about it. It’s also a field in which anything seems possible so people love to use their imaginations and ask questions like, “so, could you use spider venom to cure cancer?”

Eventually, people ask, “So what exactly is biomedical engineering?” and then I explain that biomedical engineering is more on the mechanical engineering side of bioE, but I’m majoring in biological engineering that is a very broad field but more focused on synthetic and molecular biology engineering than biomedical instruments—or at least, that is what I am most interested in within bioengineering. Even if it is complicated trying to explain to people what I do and what I’m majoring in, I absolutely love being Course 20 at MIT, I love talking about biological engineering with people, hearing their crazy ideas, and I love the wide variety of difficult problems biological engineering can address.   

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