Biological Engineering FAQ
By Brian Chase '06, Managing Editor
Q: What is Biological Engineering? What is Biomedical Engineering? What is Bioengineering? Is there a difference?
A: MIT has been at the forefront of establishing a new engineering discipline based in modern molecular life sciences - Biological Engineering - where engineering principles in design, synthesis, and analysis are applied to biology at the molecular and cellular level, in contrast to Biomedical Engineering, which is the application of traditional engineering disciplines to medical problems without any necessary grounding in molecular life sciences.
In other words, biological engineering, at least as it's viewed at MIT, is the discipline of using engineering principles and quantitative measurements to be able to both understand and engineer biological systems and molecules. For example, MIT biological engineers have modeled quantitatively how bone marrow cells and white blood cells take up and process an important growth factor called Granulocyte Colony-Stimulating Factor (GCSF).
The model predicts that a version of GCSF that binds less well inside the cell compared to the surface will last longer in the bloodstream and thus require less frequent administration (such models are discussed in BE.320).
Such "cell physiology" models -- molecular thermodynamic models of the binding of the GCSF molecule to its receptor -- enable predictions of how to "engineer" a better GCSF by substituting key amino acids in the binding site for ones with different charge (this example is analyzed in BE.110). In fact, natural GCSF is a billion+ $$/year drug, and the new version developed by MIT biological engineers is now in development.
At MIT, Biological Engineering is considered a "discipline" - so much so that the Dean of Engineering Dr. Thomas Magnanti has requested that MIT award a Course Number (20) to BE. Biomedical Engineering (BME), on the other had, involves application of traditional engineering disciplines, such as Mechanical Engineering or Electrical Engineering, to any of the various problems the medical field, without necessarily any understanding of mechanistic biology, but often some understanding of anatomy or organ-level physiology. This could include designing new surgical robots, methods to acquire and transmit medical images, or new artificial hearts.
At MIT, Biomedical Engineering is not considered a discipline itself but rather an application field of many engineering disciplines. Accordingly, from an education standpoint, there is no major in biomedical engineering at MIT, and no plans for one. Students who are interested in applying engineering to medicine can major in any engineering discipline.
As with Bioengineering, it is a term often used to encompass facets of both Biological Engineering and Biomedical Engineering.
Q: Does Biological Engineering involve a lot of math? What if I don't want to do bio lab work?
A: Biological engineering offers diverse options for exploring biological questions and also offers opportunities for synthesis of new things.
Some aspects of BE are focused on measurements of biological systems behavior, particularly in response to well-defined cues, so that those systems can be modeled, further studied, and ultimately controlled at the molecular scale.
There are also aspects that involve sequencing and modeling DNA and proteins, and predicting new ways for biological systems to behave. Individual projects in BE may emphasize either the mathematical/computational side, or the biological/measurement side of the problem.
Most BE research projects include some computational components, and all include some biological aspects, so students studying BE get trained in both and learn how to do engineering based in biology.
Q: How do I study Biological Engineering or Biomedical Engineering at MIT?
A: As you may have heard, Biological Engineering was approved this spring as MIT's first new undergraduate major in 29 years, and is offered on a limited enrollment basis to students of the class of 2008 or later. The curriculum for the BE SB can be found on the BE website.
Biomedical Engineering can be pursued through the major by adding appropriate electives to the core class schedule. The BME minor degree, which is administered by BE, is a minor designed to supplement students' primary education with some of the tools needed to successfully apply their engineering of choice to medicine. The curriculum of this minor can be found here. Pamphlets containing all these materials are available in the BE office (56-651) and at the (BE)-BMES booth at the Activities Midway.
Q: What kind of careers is open to students who pursue BE?
A: Many careers are possible in this expanding field. Biotech, pharmaceutical, and medical device companies have increasing needs for engineers who can "engineer biology" and are looking to MIT to provide this new breed of students.
The BE Department and (BE)-BME Society are developing a summer internship program 9specifically tailored to students of biological engineering, in response to the growing industrial demand that parallels the academic development of this new discipline. A variety of recruiting events and seminars serves to facilitate students' connections to these companies. BE also prepares students for graduate school and a research career. Students may also pursue other professional career paths, including medicine, law, and financial analysis ("Wall Street").
Q: What is BE-BMES? How can it help me?
A: (BE)-BMES, or the (Biological Engineering)-Biomedical Engineering Society, is the official academic society of the BE department and the only MIT-recognized BE student organization on campus.
The (BE)-BME Society is aimed at the professional development of students pursuing the BE Major, the BME Minor, and/or similar educational interests, and serves as the nexus of communication between faculty and students regarding courses and educational programs in BE and BME. The Society welcomes students from any major with interests at the Biology/Engineering interface.
The (BE)-BME Society sponsors a wide range of activities to promote career development and faculty-student interactions. For example, they host industry visitors events where potential employers come to talk with the students, and work with BE on developing an industry internship program. They also host many advising sessions regarding educational programs at MIT and the application process to graduate school in related fields.
The publication you are reading is the BioTECH, the (BE)-BME Society's publication that prints articles, information, and interviews pertaining to BE and BME. In the coming year, as the BE major starts up, (BE)-BMES will take an increasingly visible role in supporting BE and BME students, including opening up a student lounge, procuring bibles for BE classes, and establishing a honor society for BE students.
The (BE)-BMES website is , where a lot of information pertaining to the BE Department and its programs are accessible, and where you can get in contact with (BE)-BMES officers , who would be happy to answer any other questions you may have and/or add you to the members email list.
The BioTECH Staff would like to thank Professor Linda Griffith, Chair of the BE Undergraduate Program Committee, for reviewing this FAQ article.
Courtesy of The Biotech, a newsletter published by the MIT chapter of the Biological Engineering - Biomedical Engineering Society (BE-BMES).