The BioTECH Quarterly
"Bio" + "Engineering" Options: BE Major &
to the anticipated Biological Engineering major, there are many other “Bio”
+ “Engineering” options offered at MIT. Here is a sample of student perspectives
from different departments:
Toxicology Minors open doors to engaging research
"I was ripping the skin off mouse legs, extracting femoral bone
marrow, and culturing the macrophages. Infection studies and biological
protocols fit my wondering hands like proverbial gloves, and I reached
out with latex-covered fingers to the in vivo experiments."
MIT: the global hub for science, technology, and that elusive concept – research. Arriving as a bright-eyed, naïve freshman at this breeding ground for innovation, I had no idea what “research” entailed. What was this mysterious idea for which intelligent people would stop eating, sleeping, and socializing? And when could I try it out?
During my second semester here, I found Dr. David Schauer. Shortly thereafter, I was ripping the skin off mouse legs, extracting femoral bone marrow, and culturing the macrophages. Infection studies and biological protocols fit my wondering hands like proverbial gloves, and I reached out with latex-covered fingers to the in vivo experiments. After introducing Citrobacter rodentium to immunodeficient mice, I labeled plates for a few days and hypothesized about what exactly “animal work” would entail. I never dreamed that so many hours would be spent staring expectantly at a mouse’s rear end. Who’d have thought that infection studies relied so much on excremental data? Fecal plating, genotyping, smearing stool to detect occult blood . . . And yet – far from having a stinky time at MIT, I’ve loved it.
Academically here, I’ve majored in biology, with minors in biomedical engineering and toxicology, along with a concentration in technical writing. After having experienced 18.03 and 2.005, I realized that heavy mechanical calculations were not my cup of tea – I loved pure science, but I needed to see the numbers with respect to real life. Instead of pondering the S-world and the entropy of an engine, I wanted to explore the resting potential of a cellular membrane or learn the principles of human disease by measuring cytokine levels.
I gleaned a huge wealth of knowledge from genetics and immunology, but courses like BE.105J (Biotechnology and Engineering), BE.104J (Toxicology and Public Health), and 22.01 (Introduction to Ionizing Radiation) also whetted my academic appetite: I realized the importance of quantitative results in assessing the benefits of treatment, as well as the biological application of technical data.
The BME minor here provides an apt petri dish in which to culture an understanding of engineering and how to apply it to the many facets of life. One of the initial challenges of engineering is learning the basics; it’s tough to learn about various orbitals or equations if you never see how to apply them. In BE.105J, we examined the marketing, clinical, production, and ethical aspect of a particular medical treatment. I explored the biocompatibility of stents, then TA’d the marketing and clinical components of Avastin, and saw how the calculations contributed to the overall product. In 22.01, a component of the engineering core, we learned about various imaging techniques and ideas like hormesis – for example, did you know that small levels of radiation exposure might actually be good for you?
The toxicology minor develops an understanding of how various environmental factors affect human health. For example, since I had never taken a statistics course, I tried out 18.05 (Probability and Statistics) during my junior year. It was overwhelmingly theoretical, and I couldn’t see how to apply the initial “counting methods” in probability to the results of my infection studies. I was also taking BE.104J at the time, and there we learned more useful tools in statistical analysis – the t test, assessing p-values, and variation in a population. These basic principles were taught alongside toxicological mechanisms and environmental standards; connecting them all in a scientific context really brought the lessons home. The classes in each minor program are very application-based, providing a context for people from a wide variety of backgrounds.
I eventually want to use clinical data to cultivate new ideas and enhance existing medical options. However, to thoroughly understand how organisms function, we should work from the inside out, applying the basics of biomechanics, kinetics, and cellular dynamics to living models. The technical knowledge inherent to earning an MIT degree in Biological Engineering will enable students to predict and understand their future experimental data. Nowhere else in the world has such a rigorous and research-oriented atmosphere.
Biological Engineering for me combines the basics of life science with “real life” applications. The only problem that might emerge with the new “Course 20” is its breadth, a double-edged sword: when combining these different facets of technology, how can an employer determine what this “Biological Engineering Major” applicant knows?
It’s up to MIT, however, to cut through the various other programs and set the universal standard on a biological engineering curriculum. Students then entering the major, minor, or master’s degrees can pick their own specializations. Right now, it’s “so far, so good” at MIT: the basic tenets of biochemistry and cell biology, combined with advanced engineering concepts of fluid dynamics and kinetics, will create strong candidates for analytical research.
Whether honing in on toxicological mechanisms or mashing up mice feces, the vast field of biomedical research holds a challenging and never-ending plethora of information. Conquer more problems via research. Work up from a microscopic level to macroscopic applications. Explore MIT and BME – you’ll learn a lot about life.
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