What is Biological Engineering? [IBE 2012]

Engineering is born from the act of making a mess and being able to put the pieces back together, often with quite innovative results. Engineering involves facing failure with a positive attitude, realizing that failure is one more way (and often one of the best ways) toward learning. Engineering is not just taking information out of a book. The teaching of engineering must involve creativity and hands-on experience.

“Every child is an engineer.” – IBE Conference attendee

Engineers often start the story of how they found their way into their chosen field something like this: “Well it all started when I took my Dad’s VCR apart, and tried to put it back together. It was a mess!”

746px-Hip_replacement_Image_3684-PH.jpg What is Biological Engineering?

Biological Engineering is the epitome of a diverse education, field of study, and institution. Biological Engineers study biology from an engineering perspective, applying engineering principles to biological processes in order to build better solutions to a large variety of problems. For example, biological engineers design things like the medical devices we see when we go to our doctor’s office, the processes that clean our water, the genetically modified bacteria that can clean up toxic waste streams, and the diagnostic devices that test our blood sugar. Biological engineers also study classical engineering disciplines like mechanical, electrical, and chemical engineering. To be a biological engineer is to have a wide breadth of technical skills and scientific expertise, while solving precise problems.

“We have the hardest job – we have to know not just engineering, but biology … on a level that even biologists often don’t – on an engineering level.” – Kaustubh Bhalerao, University of Illinois-U.C.

There is strength in the breadth of an education in Biological Engineering. Employers today are increasingly looking for engineers who can see a problem at the level of the whole system – who have the ability to realize the big picture of the problem and its diverse components. Biological Engineers are in a great position to fulfill this need for individuals who take a whole system approach to solving biological, medical, environmental, and other engineering problems.

“The illiterate of the future will not be the person who cannot read. It will be the person who does not know how to learn.” – Alvin Toffler

What do Biological Engineers do?

Biological engineers end up in a wide variety of academic, research, and industrial fields. From environmental and ecological fields, to bioprocessing, to biofuels and bioenergy research and production, to food processing and genetic engineering, biological engineers are everywhere. Engineers are often dynamic individuals who show self-initiative and critical thinking – a key credential that employers look for.

Regardless of whether biological engineers go into risk analysis, bioenergy, the pharmaceutical industry, environmental consulting, or even entertainment engineering (“There had to be some engineers to get Cirque du Soleil to work!” – Art Johnson), their communications and team skills are of vast importance.

“An engineer who has built the best system in the world but who can’t communicate it… that’s no good.” – Art Johnson

Engineers work in teams – today’s problems are global and inter-disciplinary, requiring engineers and scientists to have good teamwork and ethical skills. Biological engineering touches cutting-edge technology and biosystems. Consequences of technology, environment, and biosystem modification are systematic in a globalized society, potentially impacting millions of people.

“We have the power to change ecosystems: impacting food, animals, plants, water, sustainability of the planet… With new synthetic biology techniques, we have the ability to create new forms of life and perhaps even create life.” – Jerry Gilbert, Mississippi State University

With great power comes…

Topics of ethical dilemma in the field of biological engineering include genetically modified food sources – both animal and plant, embryonic stem cell research, animal testing, tissue engineering of organs, “Frankenstein meat” – i.e. steak and other protein food sources ‘grown’ in the laboratory, and bio-war-fare agents produced from genetic engineering of bacteria for example, among other ethical issues. Care to order a custom baby? In the minds of many, genetic engineering undertaken by biological engineers has dangerous consequences if used for unintended applications. Along with his or her education and research, the biological engineer must contemplate how to solve society’s most complex problems without sacrificing integrity and highest-quality design.

“We live in a challenging time – it’s going to take very innovative… and ethical solutions to solve our world’s imminent problems.” – Jerry Gilbert, Mississippi State University

Engineers have a world-wide responsibility to both work on solutions to complex problems like global climate change and bioenergy resources while maintaining open communications with researchers in other disciplines and the public at large.

This feature on Biological Engineering was inspired by the Institute of Biological Engineering 2012 Conference. Read more about IBE 2012 on Twitter, #ibe2012.