Monday, February 1, 2010

Academic identity crisis

My dad and I happened to be talking about construction failures earlier today -- a raised highway section that collapsed in the Loma Prieta earthquake; the tiles that fell off the Big Dig ceiling. He spoke about them in terms of redundancy and single points of failure, using the engineer lingo that he's picked up from reading books about civil engineering. When I'm being cynical about synthetic biology, I think biologists like to use these terms to make themselves sound sophisticated.

It does bother me, though, that I will graduate from this place with the word "Engineering" on my degree but possibly without the ability to analyze a design, find its flaws, and fix them. I will be able to design an experiment to determine whether Protein X affects Process Y in the cells of Species Z, which covers the word "Biological" on my degree... but will I be a real engineer?

A lot of synthetic biologists come into the field from computer science or electrical or civil engineering, and the whole point of synthetic biology is to turn biology into a Real Engineering Discipline that systematically uses ideas like redundancy in design. If you count up the most prominent synthetic biologists and their origins, it's easy to get the idea that "foreigners" from Real Engineering Disciplines are coming into biology, understanding the science within a week or two, and then dragging it kicking and screaming out of laboratories into design studios and factories. This, too, bothers me.

I do believe that this endeavor will be a truly collaborative one, and will require people with a thorough grounding in biology-the-science as well as people with classical engineering training. I even have a couple of professors' opinions to back this up, although I won't get actual data to confirm or deny this belief until I'm at least in grad school. Certainly biological training helps with designing and conducting experiments; you have to know what a Western blot does in order to know when it's appropriate to do one, and to do it properly. But this makes the biologists sound like the servant underclass in the making of synthetic biology.

Even apart from all this, I worry that synthetic biology, as the newest addition to the family of bioengineering subfields, is not yet ready for its practitioners to be trained in bioengineering instead of in biology or in engineering. I worry that, with an interdisciplinary education, the only thing I'm becoming good at is dabbling, and that I won't develop a true expertise in any particular subfield. -- Then again, isn't undergrad for exploring, and grad school for developing a focus?

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