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MIT student blogger Ben O. '19

Biological Engineering at MIT by Ben O. '19

My thoughts, feelings, and opinions (and slight ranting) about biology both at MIT and in general

MIT is, at the very least, interesting when it comes to biology. You will find there are two groups of people. There is group A that despises biology and if it weren’t for 7.01x being a GIR (a required class at MIT), they would never come anywhere near biology. Group B on the other hand is a mix of anxious premeds and kids trying to convince their parents that going to grad school can be just as rewarding as going to med school….. groupA>>groupB. I quite obviously fall into group B (the second half of group B, I thought I had convinced my parents that grad school would be cool, but they recently found that MD/PhD is a thing, so I still have a lot of persuading to do), I love biology and I spend a lot of my time telling my course 2 (ME), course 18 (math), course 8 (physics), course 16 (aero/astro) and very very very course 6 (EECS) fraternity that biology is a real science (I am the only course 20 in a group of 60ish so I have had a lot of interesting conversations at my fraternity about how T-cells are not testosterone cells. They are all super smart guys, they just don’t like biology).

Nevertheless, MIT leads the world in its biology research. The Koch, the Broad, the Whitehead, Picower Institute, etc. are all full of amazing minds that are truly changing the way that we see the mind, the body, and life itself. Course 20 itself is a pretty rare major. Most schools offer biology or BME (biomedical engineering), but there are very few Universities that will offer a biological engineering degree. I have found that biology is more basic science, things like figuring out what a protein does, how does this process work, if I induce this what will happen. BME is closer to MIT’s 2A-7 which is more of a device and prosthetics major, there is a lot of work in making things like MRI’s, CAT scans, neuroprosthetics, etc. However, biological engineering takes biological concepts and figures out how to apply them so, now that I know inducing this makes that how can I make a therapy, how can I use this protein as a marker for cancer detection, how can I simulate this phenomenon on a chip, etc. I entered the field of biology in order to make or find something that can change the way we treat cancer, so having a major that takes the information we have and finds out how to apply was exactly what I needed.

This semester is the first time that I am taking a course 20 class, so I cannot say a ton about how amazing or not amazing the course 20 classes are, but I can try to summarize what I have learned since I got here. What you will find as a course 20 vs a course 7 (biology) is that course 20 requires a lot more not so biology classes. So as a course 20 you are required to take 18.03 (differential equations) where as in biology you are free to stop at 18.02 (multivariable equations). You are also required to take 6.0001 and 6.0002 (Introduction to Computer Science and Programming in Python and Introduction to Computational Thinking and Data Science) which is always a surprise to students at MIT course 20 and not. On the other hand you also take more basic chemistry and biology classes, things like 5.12 (organic chemistry), 7.05 (biochem), 7.06 (cell biology), and 7.03 (genetics). Actual course 20 classes are normally kind of are more mathy than bio classes, and more bioy than math classes, right now I am taking 20.110 (thermodynamics of biomolecular systems) which has been an amazing class and a super interesting way of looking biology, and next semester I will be taking the lab class 20.109 (Labaratory Fundamentals in Biological Engineering).

Now outside of MIT I have quite a few thoughts on how I feel about the field of biology as a whole right now (fair warning before reading this part if you are not super passionate about biology this part is a little bit depressing and could discourage you. So decide for yourself if you want to keep reading, but if you do decide to read ahead you must read until the end). Biology (and to a lesser extent chemistry) has a very large amount of problems when it comes to research. I have only been working in labs for about 2 years total (a year hear and about a year in highschool), but my impression on what happens in thelabs has changed quite significantly since I first stepped into one. So I will address things that will undoubtedly pop up if you decide to go into the field.

So, in biology there are two really big fields that people go into, academia and industry. Academic research is done at a University and normally works towards exploring unsearched areas, novel ideas, and explanations to various phenomena. On the other side there is industry, this is composed of various companies (things like biogen, Novartis, etc.). In industry research is done with the purpose of making a profit and getting drugs that will make it to patients. Here, there is less of a move towards finding something new and more of a move towards making something that can be used. I will be addressing issues that appear in both Academics and Industry.

Money: One of the biggest problems with biology is that biology is expensive. A 50 microliter aliquot of a substance you need for an experiment can easily cost $300. Then there are analysis machines, pipets, bio hoods, incubators, robots, computers, etc. etc. etc. A lab is expensive, so a lot of the research that can be very much limited by how much the lab has. A lot of my friends can have a good idea and begin work on a CS startup as long as they have a few computers; however, if I ever wanted to make a startup, the entry cost could easily be $1 mil or more. This very much decreases the ability for there to be a large amount of interesting startups.

Publications: This is more of a problem in academia than there is in industry, but it comes down to the fact that publications is one of the only metrics that academia currently has for success. This creates a number of problems, the biggest of which is high impact papers with little to no impact. Basically, the end goal for a lot of people in biology is to become a PI (Principle Investigator) at some University. A PI is the head of a lab at a University. PI’s are the main decision makers for a lab and sit at highest position in academic research. Here the pay is good, you get your own lab, and you get to decide what that lab works on. However, in order to do this you must compete against all of the other Doctoral and Post-Doctoral students that all want this position. So, in order to get this position you need to have the BEST sounding papers, with the LARGEST impact, and you need a LOT of them. Given that a graduate student only has about 6 years to get their research done, and a post-doc only has about 2 years there is not enough time to get out a lot of really good papers that are done the “right” way. The only way to reach this high mass of paper is to skip repeating experiments, sketchy methods, and creating results that have little application to real life. An example of this would be finding a new chemical that can hold off cancer with low toxicity in different kinds of patients, but cost $2mil and 4 years to produce an ounce and has a shelf life of 3 days. This creates for a very high impact paper, but the likelihood of it ever getting to a patient is very low. Many scientist make this then move on to the next high impact paper with hopes of finally making it to PI. However, there are not very many other ways to do research if you ever want to become a PI, because if you don’t make high impact papers, no one will know you have done anything.

Post-Docs: A post-doc is again is more of an academic issue than an industry issue. A post-doc is a position that is normally required after graduate school if you want to become a PI. It normally last about two years and is basically a very smart very talented graduate student. However, there are a number of problems with the post-doc position. There is a very high number of people that have become stuck in eternal post-docs. Basically, every two years they move to another post-doc position and continue to apply to every open PI position open, but seem to have no luck. So, basically these are extremely overqualified individuals that are stuck with position and pay equal to that of a graduate student. It is also very beneficial for PI’s to hire post-docs, because they produce the best research for a price not much more than graduate students, so there is very little that is pushing PI’s to adjust the way that post-docs work.

Cures: One of the large problems in industry is the fact that cures are simply not profitable. The most profitable research is a product that will decrease the effects within a patient, but must be continuously taken in order maintain constant health. Cures on the other hand only call for a single use and no more. Given that industry invest around 15-80million dollars and about 7-15 years into R&D of a single drug, it only makes sense that they would only want to make something that can make their money back. If they do not make something in which they can make money, the business will very quickly run out of money and go under.

Monopolies: Though this is not a long term problem, when companies first put out a product they are given a license on that product for a given time that allows them to be the only people that produce that product. Therefore, for this given time, prices for drugs can be extremely expensive, because companies must make as much money during this license period, because after that period ends they must fight against competition. This makes it so that people that must rely on this new drug are forced to pay a large amount of money because there are no other companies making it.

Industrial Hierarchy: In industry, a large of the final decisions get to be made by businessmen who may or may not have a scientific background. This can make it very frustrating to be a scientist who is passionate about a project they are working on, but it is cut very early because it may not be profitable. It also means that scientist doing the research have very little say on what they are researching.

As someone that entered the field of biology in order to help people over anything else, these “red tapes” are very frustrating and something that is constantly on my mind. The reason I have stayed in the field is because I still want to help people, and I have decided that I will do everything I can to continue to do that. I have not figured out how I will surpass these boundaries, and honestly I have very little idea about I might change this system to make it better. Nevertheless, biology is still the field that at its very core has the power to heal those that thought there was no hope, and that is what I hope to find. I think if you want to be a biologist you must have a passion to put progress over money, fame, and recognition, at least for now. I think a lot of these problems have risen from an age old system that is long overdue for an update. So, I really believe it is up to the younger generation to begin a process of making this system a system that does what it was meant to do, and that is help people.