The BioTECH Quarterly
Interview with Douglas Lauffenburger:
By Joao Paulo Mattos '08, Features editor
BioTECH: You are a chemical engineer by training. Could you tell us a little about how you became interested in biological and biomedical engineering?
Lauffenburger: Well, I was interested in biology since my senior year in college, when I took a cell physiology course and a biochemistry course. I realized that there were interesting biological problems that could be addressed from an engineering viewpoint. I then joined the faculty at UPenn both in chemical engineering and bioengineering. During the 1980ís, as I pursued research with my graduate students, we tried to tackle problems of how cells operate and of how to build technologies based on what cells do. What I learned was that we needed to bring more kinds of engineering principles to bear on these biological problems. It turned out we needed to bring in some things from mechanics and from computer science methodology and from electrical engineering approaches. The more and more we got into problems of how you really understand how cells work it became clear to me that we really needed a kind of discipline that was more centrally focused on the key issues in biology than any one of the ongoing engineering disciplines. Mechanical or chemical engineers by themselves couldnít really understand how cells worked. I learned as we went along over a decade or two about all the different kinds of principles or approaches we had to bring to bear to really figure out how biology worked.
BioTECH: From your time at University of Pennsylvania to the University of Illinois to MIT there seems to be a pattern concerning the courses you taught. As time went by you went from chemical engineering courses to courses focused more on the biological side. Could you explain these changes?
Lauffenburger: I liked all of them. I didnít go from one to the other because I didnít like them, thatís for sure. The University of Pennsylvania of course was an Ivy League institution, and engineering was sort of lower on their visibility and priority. So in a sense you felt as if you were swimming upstream. The University of Illinois was where I got my undergraduate degree, so it was interesting to go back there. All the faculty who had been ďProfessor so-and-soĒ were now my colleagues. A big change from UPenn was that Illinois was a large state school where engineering is a major part of what happens on campus. Also, the students were very heterogeneous. There were some who were interested in research, some who wanted to go out and find a job, and some who were the first in their family to go to college. To find an undergraduate student there who was interested in research was really a special thing. Not all of them were interested in going on to graduate school or to get a PhD. As for MIT, well MIT is unique because it is all about integrating research and education. Weíre simultaneously trying to break new ground in research and transferring that immediately to education and having the things that we teach inspire us to think of new ideas for research. Research and education are so intertwined that I have lots of undergraduate students in my lab and they quickly become very strong and ambitious researchers. The dividing line between graduate and undergraduate researchers is much more fluid here. Another thing thatís different here is that you get the sense that MIT expects you to not just have good scholarship in your research or to be an effective teacher, but expects you to do something that makes an impact. Thereís the ďso what?Ē question. What difference does what youíre doing and teaching make in society? Is it having an impact in industry and technology? Thereís that extra dimension that I find very gratifying and stimulating.
BioTECH: Do you feel as if you have more contact with students here than you in did in other places?
Lauffenburger: No, not necessarily. Iíve always had a pretty open door. What I tell students here is the same thing I told students at the other schools: that itís going to be hard for me to come looking for you. But if you come looking for me, my door is open and Iíll be happy to talk and to get to know you. Iíd say to students that they have to take the initiative; they have to knock on the professorís door. In most cases, with the majority of faculty here, they will be very welcoming.
BioTECH: Are there pressures for a researcher in an undefined field such as Biological Engineering that are not there for a more established field such as Chemical Engineering?
Lauffenburger: I would say it is different because the expectations arenít as clear. If youíre in any disciplineóchemical or mechanical engineering, for instanceóa discipline thatís been going on for some decades, people have an expectation for what that discipline can or cannot accomplish in any area of application. People who have been in their disciplines for a few decades know what tools are available to them and what those tools are capable of. They know whether theyíve done a good job with those tools. When you say youíre starting a new discipline and youíre going to pull a different set of tools together, leaving some behind and annexing some in, youíre on unfamiliar ground. No one knows what to expect from that new combination of tools. Itís just not as clear what success is. So itís harder in a sense, but on the other hand, itís also more interesting. Youíre on more intellectually open ground, and the expectations arenít as constrained.
BioTECH: Biological engineering is not as prominent, or at least is not making as much impact, in the third world as it is in places like the US and Europe. Is there any way to change this? Is there a way to make the field more prominent worldwide?
Lauffenburger: As long as bioengineering is about advancing the state of the art of clinical and hospital healthcare, that by and large is important for the wealthiest portion of society. Now, biological engineering is about that certainly, but itís also about solving other societal problems. For example, environmental health. What is it in the environment that is causing a lot of diseases today? Are we really understanding where all of this comes from? Can we do preventative things? Another area we can focus on, in a novel way, is tissue engineering. Say we do not just focus on implanting organs into a few thousand people, which again would probably be the richest people in the world, but we develop tissue models for human physiology so that we can do high throughput testing. We could replace animal experiments, make drug discovery a lot more efficient and cheaper, and thereby make drugs that will treat millions of people at a much lower cost. A more efficient process could also make it less costly to take vaccines to developing countries and so forth. Another issue we could address is methods of manufacturing that have biological routes that donít require a lot of the expensive and toxic manufacturing processes. All these things that impact society and human health are in the scope of biological engineering. I think biological engineering as we define it here at MIT is going to have a major impact worldwide.
Engineering Society of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. All
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