Near the center of Neal Simon’s desk sits a baseball-sized marble sphere, a gift from a friend in graduate school.
“He said, ‘Whatever way you look at it, you can’t see the other side,’” says Simon, professor of behavioral neuroscience in Lehigh’s College of Arts and Sciences (CAS). “’But you need to understand how people on the other side are thinking.’”
Today, life scientists need to consider the perspectives and contributions of people on the other side of the ball, who include engineers, computer scientists, mathematicians and even business people.
Hard-and-fast boundaries between disciplines, says Simon, no longer exist. “What we try to do is bring an appropriately diverse skill set to bear on modern biological problems.”
To help students see their fields in the larger context of modern life science, Simon and Vassie C. Ware, professor of molecular biology in CAS, won funding in 2006 from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to create the Biosystems Dynamics Summer Institute (BDSI). The research program teams undergraduates with peers, graduate students and faculty from biology, engineering and other fields. When a second round of HHMI funding, which was received from HHMI in 2010, ends this year, BDSI will become a Lehigh-funded program.
The key to BDSI, says Ware, is that “we invite undergraduates to be involved with a large bioscience problem that is of interest to faculty from different disciplines. These faculty teams have a vested interest in the solution and in sharing the work with undergraduates and graduate students.”
“I have undergraduates in my lab all year,” says Yevgeny Berdichevsky, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering. “In the summer, they see how I work with graduate students and get a bigger sense of the project. They are full participants in the research.”
Each year the BDSI program accepts 16 to students, from Lehigh and other schools, out of nearly 100 who apply. For 10 weeks the students conduct research in four to six teams. Guided by faculty and graduate students, they learn to work independently and produce publishable papers, posters and presentations.
One goal of BDSI is to break down cultural barriers between biologists and engineers.
“Biology is a hypothesis-driven field,” says Simon. “Engineering is about the application of knowledge to address specific issues.”
“Engineers tend to be technology-centric,” says Berdichevsky, who co-led a team using advanced microscopy to study whether post-traumatic epilepsy kills neurons. “Medically oriented scientists are more interested in how they can cure a specific disease, but they are not necessarily aware of the technological possibilities.”
Nicole Pirozzi, a senior bioengineering major who worked on Berdichevsky’s team, says biological literature can frustrate her.
“They’ll say, ‘This was observed.’ But when? How much? Is it measured over time so you can see improvement?”
Now Pirozzi sees how her experience can bridge disciplines. “As a bioengineer, every project I’m going to work on will be interdisciplinary. It’s intuitive that people like me would be in the gap, creating innovation not just by understanding a (biological) process but by knowing how we can improve it.
“I learned that it’s OK not to know everything about everything. If you can communicate what you do know, and if you can understand what others have to offer, it grows your base of knowledge so much more than just studying in your own field.”
Aislinn Rowan, a senior majoring in biology and psychology, worked in 2012 with Yaling Liu, associate professor of mechanical engineering and mechanics, and Linda Lowe-Krentz, professor of cell biology in CAS. Their goal is to develop a method of testing cancer drugs on a chip etched with channels that are coated with human endothelial cells.
“We weren’t just culturing cells, we were actually building microdevices to test fluid shear forces in the bloodstream,” Rowan says. “To say I just do biological research is short-sighted, because I know I will have to work with people from other disciplines to make real progress.”
Bryan Berger, assistant professor of chemical engineering, and M. Kathryn Iovine, associate professor of evolutionary biology in CAS, led a team that studied how protein receptors help zebrafish regenerate missing fins. “We are looking at physiology from the organism level down to the molecular level, where bioengineering and microbiology students offer a lot,” says Berger.
The team’s students came from backgrounds as varied as mathematics and the Integrated Business and Engineering (IBE) Honors Program.
Sam Flores, a junior majoring in molecular biology, learned about organizing data and using computers from Durlav Mudbhari, an IBE junior who kept a protein purification apparatus running in optimal condition.
“I didn’t have much biology experience,” Mudbhari says. “It was interesting to see how my engineering background could merge with biological science. BDSI taught me how to work in a research lab and be independent.”
Alyssa Driscoll, a senior bioengineering major, says BDSI was much more demanding than other research experiences.
“It’s not like a course lab where you know what answer you’re supposed to get,” she says. “It was very much, ‘Go, do your thing.’ We learned fast. It was so self-motivating.”
Story by Robert W. Fisher '79
Photos by Christa Neu