Vol. 4 No. 4 December 2005

Poster Session 

Dedon Interview

BME Elsewhere

Novartis Tour

Alumni Notes

Student Research

Printable Version

The BioTECH Quarterly

Interview with Professor Peter Dedon
Insights into what Biological Engineering means to Scientists vs. Engineers

Dr. Peter Dedon is the Associate Director of the MIT Biological Engineering (BE) Division and Professor of Toxicology and Biological Engineering.
His research is focused on cellular responses to chemical, physical, and biological agents, the chemistry and biology of DNA damage and inflammation, and biochemical approaches to studying DNA torsion.

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.
    Being one of the original members of the division back when it was formed in 1998, I found that there were those of us who were scientists and those who were more engineering-oriented. Itís hard to distinguish between the two now. Once we get real biological engineering faculty in here (that is, junior faculty who come from a biological engineering background), itís going to be really hard to tell the difference.
    Iíve always viewed it as a nice education for scientists in terms of the applications of math, models, and other quantitative facets to biology. Iíve always been quantitative ó we quantify things. We donít do modeling, the kinds of mathematical models that many people do.

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.
   The BE program at MIT is clearly established so that the biology is fused with the engineering. Engineering issues are applied to biological problems in the same class setting. Itís a serious BE program, and probably the first.
    I think the fact that we create subjects that are clearly new to a discipline called BE, rather than taking Mechanical, Electrical, and Nuclear Engineering subjects and having some extra biology on the side makes us unique. And weíre not late at all; I think we might be early. Sure a lot of other schools have a BME program, but I donít think they have the substance in terms of the core subjects that BE does.

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
   On the other hand, getting in on the ground floor is a fabulous opportunity. In 10, 15 years, when BE is so clearly established and defined as a discipline, I think people will be thankful that they invested in this early.
    Sure, there are going to be some bugs in the major. You know, youíll have classes that are oversubscribed, labs that youíll be lotteried out of, and so on. But the classes will evolve. Right now they have a very strong BE vision. Yes, there might be some risks, but I think the benefits far outweigh the risks in venturing into this new area.
    Industry now is recognizing this BE discipline and is beginning to embrace it in terms of the development of drugs and devices. They see the need for strong engineers who have a great feeling for biological systems and problems. The risk is that when you graduate, what are you going to do for a job? Thatís the risk for any major. The benefit of BE is that if you give this thing a few years, thereís going to be a big demand.

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.
    How do undergraduates know what it is when they come to MIT? Everyone has a different definition for BE. Undergrads arenít quite sure what it is, and thatís our challenge. To clarify this and present it in a way that is immediately obvious to everyone; not just to undergraduates but also to graduate students and to the public. Thatís coming along. A clearly defined vision for the definition of BE is already out there, and the fog is clearing.

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