When Walt Disney introduced “it’s a small world,” it was part of the Pepsi-Cola exhibit at the 1964 World’s Fair. Located at Flushing Meadows Park in Queens, New York, the fair featured more than 140 pavilions on 646 acres and offered dual themes: “Peace through Understanding” and “Man’s Achievements on a Shrinking Globe in an Expanding Universe.” Anyone who attended the 1964 fair and everyone who’s ever taken a child to a Disney park knows the “small world” song. One of its most memorable phrases is, “There’s so much that we share that it’s time we’re aware; it’s a small world after all.” In those words songwriters Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman captured the essence of Disney’s vision for the exhibit and one of the fair’s themes. Forty years later, “it’s a small world” still emphasizes the similarities that people around the world share, the things that make individuals from diverse countries and cultures more alike than different.

To the faculty in the College of Engineering, there is an even more basic denominator, one commonality that must be explored and taught at the undergraduate level if the world is to continue to see the kind of technological progress in the 21st century that it witnessed throughout the 20th: life. Every living organism employs similar biological processes to create and sustain life. Better understanding the molecular biology of those processes, being able to track them, model them, and some day duplicate them, will enhance the quality of life for all the inhabitants of this shrinking globe.”

What James D. Watson and Francis H.C. Crick found as they researched, and eventually solved, the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) was that “the secret of life is complementarity.” Ironically, it was as true of their collaboration as it was of the double helix design they unveiled in 1953. Their teamwork, as one colleague put it, was “that of resonance between two minds -- that high state in which 1 plus 1 does not equal 2 but more like 10.”

They shared, as Crick said, “a mad keen to solve the problem (the DNA structure).” The complementarity they discovered between the adenine-thymine pair and guanine-cytosine pair in the DNA ladder echoed the synergy of their partnership. For example, although Crick championed the complementarity concept, it was Watson who fit the final pieces of the puzzle together. When outlining their findings in the journal Nature, they were also in agreement as to whose name would come first -- a flip of a coin was to determine the order. Finally, in closing that first groundbreaking article, Watson and Crick served up a British understatement that was complementary to their well-known brashness. They wrote, “It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material.”

Their discovery, one of the most significant scientific breakthroughs of the 20th century, opened the door for a better understanding of the interactions between molecules in living systems and, thus, a better understanding of life. In 1962 Watson and Crick received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine “for their discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material.” They shared the honor with Maurice Wilkins of London University.

After their discovery, Watson joined the faculty of Harvard University and then accepted a position first as associate director and then as director of the National Institute of Health’s fledgling Human Genome Project. In 1992 he joined the Cold Harbor Laboratory in Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y. Today, he is chancellor of the Watson School of Biological Sciences at the laboratory. Crick focused his efforts on the synthesis of proteins and the genetic code as a fellow at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego, Calif. He served as the Distinguished Professor and President Emeritus of the Kieckhefer Center for Theoretical Biology at the institute until his death on July 28, 2004.

The integration of engineering with life sciences ... from molecular to ecosystem levels ... is a natural process. As society’s innovators engineers have always been the “builders,” the ones who say “what if” and then work to make a product, service, or situation better. At times that means advancing existing technologies to better meet a need. Often it means pioneering new technologies.

Some may argue that with the cracking of the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) in 1953 by James D. Watson and Francis H.C. Crick, the field of molecular (or cellular) biology is hardly new. Others would counter that the most dramatic benefits of that particular achievement are yet to come and that the leaders of the next technological revolution will be today’s engineering undergraduates as they explore and define the field of bioengineering.

“Molecular biology,” says Mark J. McCready, chair of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, “is one of the most profound revolutions in science and technology in the last 20 years. Two decades ago you couldn’t effectively engineer the life sciences, because you couldn’t write equations to accurately describe the fundamental processes of living systems. It’s only been in the last 20 years that engineers and biologists have been able to quantify events at the cellular level.”

This understanding of living organisms and the chemical operations that sustain life is pivotal to being able to engineer biological solutions for a variety of applications, including medical diagnostics; pharmaceuticals and drug-delivery methods; “biological” tissue for organ implants; natural resource conservation; water quality and treatment; soil enrichment; forest management; food growth, safety, and preservation; and biodegradable products. The number and scope of possible applications are as varied as the spectrum of life.

Yet, most engineering programs do not require its students to take biology courses. In fact, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology may be the only other university in the country that requires all of its engineering students to take a chemical biology course.

“Before researching ways to integrate biology into our engineering curriculum, we formed a faculty committee,” says McCready. The curriculum committee -- Jesus A. Izaguirre, assistant professor of computer science and engineering; Agnes E. Ostafin, assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering; Glen L. Niebur, assistant professor of aerospace and mechanical engineering; Ken D. Sauer, associate professor of electrical engineering; and Jeffrey W. Talley, assistant professor of civil engineering and geological sciences -- found that a few institutions had been modifying their chemistry courses to include aspects of chemical biology, but only for chemical and biomedical engineering majors.

“We didn’t want to cut chemistry completely; it’s a fundamental aspect of engineering,” says McCready. “On the other hand, we believed there was a distinct advantage in requiring all engineering undergraduates to experience a course in molecular biology. And, we’re confident that the chemistry-molecular biology sequence we have designed, like our engineering business program, will differentiate our graduates from students at other institutions.

The new year-long sequence requires undergraduates to take a traditional course in chemistry during the first semester of the freshman year. The molecular biology course is offered during second semester. Working closely with McCready to develop the second course in the sequence were A. Graham Lappin, professor of chemistry and biochemistry, and Francis J. Castellino, the Kleiderer-Pezold Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry and Director of the W.M. Keck Center for Transgene Research. “Faculty in chemistry and biochemistry were instrumental in helping us achieve our goals,” says McCready. “Frank Castellino, in particular, developed an incredible course for our students that will give them a solid grounding in the biological sciences.”

“Because the basic biological processes in all organisms are pretty much identical, says Castellino, “I structured the class to emphasize the unity of chemical, physical, and biological sciences.” In the course the evolution and assembly of macromolecules into cellular structures, as well as the interactions among cells, is stressed. Throughout the semester, students study the origins of matter. They learn the basic structure of the nucleus, as well as nucleosynthesis. They follow the synthesis of heavy elements and are introduced to stable and unstable nuclei and nuclear processes in various radioactive emissions.

Students review human pathologies, from the natural radioactivity of potassium to the variety of synthetic nuclides and how they are prepared and used in the diagnostic and therapeutic applications of nuclear medicine. They track the evolution of simple biologically relevant compounds and carbon bonding.

Castellino also introduces protein, DNA, and membrane structures to students. They review protein folding and discuss the roles of simple sugars and polysaccharides in the transport, structure, and storage of carbohydrates. Energy storage and the structure and functions of lipids are also studied.

As the course progresses, students learn the principles of pathogenesis and host-defense mechanisms, including chemical intervention for the elimination of pathogens and the development of antibiotic resistance. They study membrane fusion, as well as passive and active diffusion -- mechanisms for the transport of materials into and out of cells. The transduction of sensory signals and the properties of the synapse are also covered, as are the characteristics of enzymes, enzyme inhibitors, and the properties of chromosomes.

Largely a lecture course, students have ample opportunity to debate the social and ethical issues that have followed the Human Genome Project and DNA replication. “What’s most important,” says McCready, “is that through this course, our students begin to understand life science fundamentals in terms of living systems. Engineering has always been effective at describing and designing systems. By establishing this link early in our curriculum, our students can build on it throughout their time at Notre Dame and see how the life sciences connect with the full range of subjects that they study.

McCready believes that this “bio” revolution, especially in the field of health care, is where the next wave of engineering undergraduates will make the largest contributions. “Engineers have created many products and processes that have had a profound impact on health care -- such as drug-delivery patches and insulin pumps -- but many of the developments did not rely on molecular biology. What if someone said, ’We want an artificial pancreas’? Engineers would need to develop ways to sense glucose levels, create a reservoir -- with a means of filling it, and release insulin into the body without killing the patient. Or what about an artificial liver? Or a new heart, not just a mechanical pump but actual biological tissue? The point is that engineers will significantly drive the ‘bio’ revolution, but they cannot do so without first understanding biology. This course sequence is their introduction.”

The College of Engineering also offers additional courses as electives, as well as a variety of opportunities for undergraduate research in bioengineering activities.

According to McCready, the goal of the chemistry-molecular biology course sequence is not to lay the foundation for a degree program in “bioengineering” at Notre Dame. Its purpose is to better prepare engineering undergraduates to be the leaders and innovators of tomorrow, so that they can build a better world ... big or small.

Students in the Class of 2007 were the first engineering undergraduates required to take the new course, Molecular Biology for Engineers.
Nathan Stober, a chemical engineering student from Granger, Ind., says,“The course gave me insight into how biological and even nuclear processes are related to chemical reactions. It also gave me an introduction to the everyday functions of cells.”

Stober describes the course as fast-paced but very interesting. “The most important thing I learned from the course and Dr. Castellino [the course instructor],” he says, “was that a basic knowledge of chemistry is crucial to the study of almost all engineering, scientific, or medical fields.”

In addition to providing a strong base in biology for undergraduates, Molecular Biology for Engineers is proving to be a stepping stone to the wide range of bioengineering research opportunities offered throughout the College of Engineering for these first-year students, who would not normally have the opportunity to participate in hands-on research until the end of their sophomore year.

Ailis Tweed-Kent, a classmate of Stober’s and native of Pittsfield, Mass., is applying the knowledge she gained in the course to her work in the Tissue Culture Laboratory. Under the direction of Agnes E. Ostafin, assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, Tweed-Kent is studying osteoblasts, the bone cells responsible for producing calcium. “The work I’m doing here is the first step in the research process,” she says. “By observing the morphology of the cells and using chemical assays, we can gather information on their activity. When we have a basic understanding of how the cells function, then we can move to the next step in the process.

What role will engineers play in the future? Consider the impact they have had to date. Engineers are the dreamers and the doers. They apply the “what ifs” and make them practical and effective for commercialization. For example, at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, engineers took the concept of power-driven machinery and set it into motion for manufacturing. In the race for space, they employed their ingenuity not only to send men and machines to the moon, but they also extended space technology to the development of hundreds of products -- from wireless phones and heart pumps to the creation of new metal alloys and lightweight composite materials. It’s called technology transfer, and it’s the process through which the impact of research and development on the marketplace is maximized.

While organizations like the National Academy of Engineering (NAE), Honeywell International, NEC Foundation of America, National Science Foundation (NSF), and SBC Foundation believe that the engineers of tomorrow will continue to identify problems and find solutions -- many of which will be commercialized -- they are also sponsoring a two-phase initiative to identify desired attributes of engineers in 2020. The purpose of the study is to suggest strategies for engineering education that will better prepare students to meet the challenges of the future.

The attributes identified by the first phase of the study suggest that engineers must continue to possess strong analytical skills and exhibit practical ingenuity and creativity. They will need to be excellent communicators who have mastered the principles of business management. These leaders must also adhere to high ethical standards and have a strong sense of professionalism. Many of these qualities are evident in today’s engineers. But, what the study has deemed imperative for future engineers is that they be lifelong learners who are flexible and innovative. In fact, according to the study: “The pace of technological innovation will continue to be rapid (most likely accelerating). The world in which technology will be deployed will be intensely globally interconnected. The population of individuals who are involved with or affected by technology (e.g., designers, manufacturers, distributors, and users) will be increasingly diverse and multidisciplinary. Social, cultural, political, and economic forces will continue to shape and affect the success of technological innovation. The presence of technology in our everyday lives will be seamless, transparent, and more significant than ever.”

The NAE, NSF, Honeywell, NEC, and SBC are not the only participants in the discussion about the future of engineering education. According to Arthur T. Johnson, professor of biological resources engineering at the University of Maryland and author of a book and several papers on biology for engineers, “the frantic rush to establish and enhance academic bioengineering programs in the United States ... may also have kept bioengineering from emerging in an orderly and thoughtful way.”

What exactly is “bioengineering”? It’s been defined by a number of people in a variety of ways. Some view it as specifically applying to medicine and health care. Others describe it as anything affecting the human organism. The National Institutes of Health defines bioengineering as “an integration of the physical, chemical, or mathematical sciences and engineering principles for the study of biology, medicine, behavior, or health. It advances fundamental concepts, creating knowledge from the molecular to the organ systems level. It develops innovative biologies, materials, processes, implants, devices, and informatics approaches for the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of disease; for patient rehabilitation; and for improving health.” But biology also affects ecology and the environment. In fact, it is the impetus for a multitude of bio-inspired research projects across numerous fields.

Johnson believes that “all engineers these days should know something about biology.” They should have a broad understanding of biological principles, be able to apply the information known about “familiar living systems” to those of less familiar or unknown systems. They also need to be willing to work in collaborative teams, whose members offer a variety of skills and approaches.

His recommendation for a successful undergraduate engineering curriculum is one that offers “basic instruction in physics, mathematics, chemistry, biology, and engineering. Students should be able to view the full horizon of potential biological applications, from subcellular to ecological levels.” This corresponds to the approach the College of Engineering has taken in developing its new chemistry-molecular biology course sequence for undergraduates.

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