The BioTECH Quarterly
Interview with Professor Peter Dedon
By Joao Paulo Mattos í08, Features Editor
BioTECH: In your feedback to our issue last fall, you wrote, ďI like the way you included viewpoints about scientists learning about engineering, since thatís my perspective.Ē Could you please elaborate on what you meant?
Prof. Dedon: The whole notion of Biological Engineering (BE) is the interface between biology and engineering. Some people would view it as engineering applied to biological systems. Other people view it as quantitative biology, if you will. Iím a scientist; a chemist by training and an MD, so I come from an interdisciplinary research realm. I tend to view this as quantitative biology.
BioTECH: In your feedback to our issue last fall, you wrote, ďI like the way you included viewpoints about scientists learning about engineering, since thatís my perspective.Ē Could you please elaborate on what you meant?Dedon: The biggest challenge for most scientists is the math. There are only so many hours in a day and so many years in an education. If youíre focusing on the science side of the equation you do that on the expense of something else, which in this case is math and engineering.
Thatís why being in this division is fantastic. In terms of having collaborators who are adept at building machines, doing mathematical models, and doing the engineering side, all of us have fabulous collaborations with each other. The most difficult but most attractive thing is to take our scientific mindset and move into a mathematical, engineering-oriented approach to problems.
BioTECH: How does the MIT BE Division make Biological Engineering accessible to people of different backgrounds -- those who have been trained as scientists vs. those who have been trained as engineers?Dedon: Well, our new major nowóobviously thatís an engineering majoróopens the door to any undergraduate coming to MIT. Hopefully in the future weíll have a class size large enough to accommodate anyone who is interested. Right now, of course, weíre so new, we donít have all the space and resources to do that.
Clearly, with something like the BME minor, we make BE accessible to a lot of different people. Thatís one of the attractive features of the division ó you can explore it without devoting an entire major to it through the minor program. I think thatís one of the great strengths of the division: it embraces people, students, and faculty, from all disciplines.
BioTECH: Do you think BME should be a major?Dedon: Well, first I want to ask how does it differ from a BE major? Whatís the goal of that program? I think that it, philosophically, isnít much different from a BE major. I would like it to stay a minor to allow access to biological engineering as a discipline to undergraduates of all fields. Iíd like the BME minor to be preserved and expanded to be accessible to all kinds of people on campus.
BioTECH: Do you think MIT was late in having a Biological Engineering major? Why or why not?
Prof. Dedon: Oh no, I donít think so. There are a lot of schools that have cobbled together undergraduate educational programs that theyíll call biological engineering. It tends to be standard engineering classes ó and thatís not an insult ó with biology classes on the side.
BioTECH: Are there disadvantages to getting a major in a undefined and ever changing field?
Prof. Dedon: There are always disadvantages to trying something new. There are always disadvantages to committing a 4-year education to something thatís evolving
BioTECH: Do you think the collaboration among different departments at MIT is unique? Do you see it often in other schools and other places?
Prof. Dedon: A lot of my colleagues at other schools look at us and theyíre jealous. Theyíre jealous of the fact that we have such low barriers to collaboration. They see the power in being able to have access to people who can build machines, who can master twenty differential equations for a mathematical model. There are many places where scientists and engineers collaborate, but here such collaboration is so commonplace that I think itís unique of MIT.
BioTECH: What are some of the biggest challenges facing the field of Biological Engineering these days, be they political, financial, or ethical challenges. How do we face such challenges?
Prof. Dedon: I donít think there are many financial problems because the National Institutes of Health now recognize BE as an important approach to solving medical problems. The challenge for us is to elevate the visibility of biological engineering as a discipline.
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