(513b) Biology in Che Education: Future-Research Perspectives

Authors: 
Shuler, M. L. - Presenter, Cornell University


Biology has changed tremendously in the last 25 to 30 years from a largely descriptive science to one with a strong foundation based on underlying molecular mechanisms. This change facilitates the ability of chemical engineers to make contributions to both a better understanding of how living organisms function and to the application of biological insights to problems of societal importance, such as human health, sustainable development, and cleaner environment. Biological mechanisms can be analyzed using the classic undergraduate ChE tools of stoichiometry, kinetics, thermodydnamics, mass transfer, and applied mathematics. Chemical engineers are well-positioned to address the key issue in biology: relating genomic and molecular insights to the physiology of whole organisms. However, students need additional background beyond the traditional ChE courses; primarily in biochemistry, cell biology, molecular biology, and physiology. When chemical engineers are involved in applications, the emphasis may change, but the same engineering and biological fundamentals pertain.

It is important to recognize that biology is more than new vocabulary; it is a different way of thinking. What constitutes ?proof? in biology is radically different from what chemical engineers might consider proof. The ?hypothesis-driven? research model of biology and the associated experimental approaches differ from typical chemical engineering education. A successful biochemical engineer needs to be able to appreciate the strengths in both the chemical engineering approach to problem solving and the biological approach to discovery. A biochemical engineer needs to synthesize these two intellectual frameworks into a coherent whole. A PhD biochemical engineer will develop this integrated, coherent perspective. At the undergraduate level, it is difficult to achieve this fusion of intellectual approaches, especially through coursework. Undergraduate, hands-on, research is the best approach for undergraduates to achieve a coherent perspective of biochemical engineering.

The opportunities for biochemical engineers in the next 50 years are great, but success will depend on educational experiences that achieve a true coherence in engineering and biological approaches to new knowledge.