Advanced Cell Biology and the engineer

As part of the INBT’s Nano-Bio Graduate Training Program, we are required to take a few courses, on top of our departmental course requirements. To fulfill these requirements, I am currently taking AS.020.686 Advanced Cell Biology.

I expected the course to be just another required course – interesting, but not as exciting as the courses I elect to take. While the 8:30 a.m. time slot is earlier than I would like, the material has been very enjoyable so far.

I have a background in biomedical engineering, but I haven’t actually taken a biology class since high school. As a result, I have an engineer’s perspective on biology, which, as it turns out, is very different than that of a biologist. Even though we are all thinking about the same problems, the things that we emphasize as important are quite different. In Advanced Cell Biology, I have the opportunity to look at biology as a biologist, which has been both refreshing and informative.

My research project is heavily based in biology, but I approach it as an engineer. The course is helping me to see my project in another light. So far, this shift in perspective has proven useful, and I think it will be valuable in my future endeavors, too.

Right now, there are people with many different backgrounds doing biomedical research – biologists, chemists, physicists, mathematicians, engineers, and medical doctors, to name a few – and they present a diverse set of views regarding the best way to approach a given problem. In my experience, they all make important contributions to the larger picture, but no single perspective seems like it will be able to answer the big questions.

I think it will be the combination of these perspectives that will ultimately be able to solve the really big biomedical problems. Taking Advanced Cell Biology this semester is giving me a small taste of how combining two viewpoints – that of an engineer with that of a biologist – can provide new ideas and insights.

Nuala Del Piccolo is a PhD candidate in the department of materials science and engineering. She conducts research on the thermodynamics of receptor tyrosine kinases.