The Nature of Engineering Professions and Bioengineering

I begin with basic observations on the history of science that lead to the conclusion that bioengineering is about to be incredibly important to the careers and lives of our students. In each observation, my simplistic model is of a scientific breakthrough—a paradigm shift [1] followed roughly a half century later by a key technology demonstration that represents an even greater paradigm shift in that over the next half century, society is radically transformed by the growth and social pervasiveness of that technology.

In 1865, James Clerk Maxwell published A Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field. Fifty years later, this science idea became an engineering demonstration with the wireless telegraph and early radio. Another 50 years later, science and engineering changed the economy and society as television became the dominant communications medium. This was the era of my father’s electrical engineering career (1940–1983).

In 1913, Niels Bohr presented a model of the atom that revolutionized physics thinking. Thirty-five years later, William Shockley, John Bardeen, and Walter Brattain coinvented the transistor. In the next 40 years, electronics became the economic driver, and society was radically changed. This scenario has and will continue to dominate society throughout my lifetime.

In 1953, Francis Crick and James D. Watson described the double helix structure of DNA, an equally profound scientific understanding that, 40–50 years later, would have its engineering demonstration in the sequencing of the human genome. The next 40–50 years will be the time when genomics and molecular biology lead to tremendous economic and social changes. This is the working career of our students.

Mechanical and chemical engineers will have a different time line, perhaps including the formulation of the periodic table or the breakthrough of the steam engine, but leading to the same conclusions as to the pace of science paradigm shift, then practical engineering demonstration, then revolutionizing engineering and economic implementation. Mechanical, electrical, and chemical engineering have each undergone such transformations, in large part because they have always been defined as the application of a root science—physics/mechanics, physics/electricity, and chemistry, respectively—to a diverse set of problems and opportunities. Notably, these fields have often created their own economies—the electronics industry is probably the best example of an industry wholly created by a technology, rather than a technology developed to serve an economy.

In contrast, civil and agricultural engineering are the opposite—the application of other engineering techniques (especially mechanical) to societal economies that are thousands of years old. The field of biomedical and health informatics is also in this category—it is mostly the application of the computer informatics field to biology and medicine; its extremely rapid growth parallels the growth of all informatics fields.

What, then, is bioengineering? Especially when the emphasis is subtly changed by the term biomedical engineering, the field is one of the application of multiple existing engineering technologies to the fields of medicine and biology. Career opportunities, especially at the bachelor’s-degree level, favor those who can apply solid electrical, mechanical, computer, or chemical and materials engineering skills to biomedical problems.

However, the 50 years following the sequencing of the human genome should see the predictability and designability implicit in the structure of the genome lead to a true biological and genetic engineering—where engineers routinely use cellular and genomic processes to design new cell-based proteins, for example. Today, of course, some of this is already being done, but usually as the result of painstaking biological experimentation that fails to approach the design capability that an electronics engineer uses for an integrated circuit. Still, there is progress, highlighted by the International Genetically Engineering Machine Competition in which students build biological systems with “BioBricks.” Our future will see routine use of biological design principles now beginning to be shown in synthetic biology, such as genetic circuits with genetic toggle switches and feedback control, to produce a wide array of products for use in biological and nonbiological applications. We will then see the emergence of a true biological engineering in addition to even better fields of engineering as applied to biomedicine.

Reference

  1. T. Kuhn, Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago, IL: Univ. of Chicago Press.