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Bioengineering in Bloom: Novel systems, novel approaches
Daniel Needleman, his hair in a long blond ponytail, sits behind his desk in the Northwest labs. Physics is where he got his start — in fact, everyone in his lab is a physicist—but you really have to call him a bioengineer. Because that’s what he does: He uses approaches from physics to understand and engineer cells.
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Daniel Needleman studies complex biological systems —such as the mitotic spindle—using analytical approaches from physics and engineering.
The Assistant Professor of Applied Physics makes a quick gesture to the physics books crowding the shelves behind him. The field has achieved “great things over the past century,” he says, “but today it’s hard to imagine finding something that’s really new. In biology, you have that opportunity.” The greatest source of excitement for Needleman is that biological processes are genetically driven. We’ve gotten to know quite a lot about genes, he says, but we still lack any nuanced understanding of how they work together. “In cell biology,” says Needleman, “the molecules can be extremely complicated. Certain phenomena require thousands of proteins getting together to do something.” And while physics has a solid track record for understanding how things work, to use physics alone as the scientific base for engineering is to turn a blind eye to the fascinating complexity of the system. Needleman’s lab uses analytical approaches drawn from engineering and physics to study the dynamics of self-organizing subcellular structures. It’s basic science—more about the general quest for understanding than any immediate, practical application —but the potential applications are breathtaking.
needleman has focused on the spindle, which plays a vital role in cell division. in images of dividing cells, the spindle looks like twin elliptical arrays of fibers that pull the chromosomes apart.
Needleman studies the mitotic spindle, which guides and separates the chromosomes during cell division.
“If we really understood the process of cell division, it could have a profound impact on health,” Needleman says. “That’s grand vision number one.” Grand vision number two has to do with the design of the spindle itself. “It’s totally different from tools that we can build. If we really understood how it worked, we might be able to borrow from the design in fashioning devices of our own.” Needleman and colleagues have used cells from the African clawed frog (Xenopus laevis), which has some of the largest cells known to science—and in developing from fertilized egg to tadpole, those cells vary in size by as much as two orders of magnitude. One might expect spindle dimensions to increase
internet encyclopedia of science
If this microtubular assembly fails, the resulting daughter cells can end up with the wrong number of chromosomes. Chromosomal abnormalities of this sort occur in about 1 out of every 160 live births. The most common is an extra copy of chromosome 21, a condition known as trisomy 21, which produces Down syndrome. Some cancer cells also have abnormal numbers of chromosomes. And certain medical treatments—chemotherapy, for instance —can interfere with cell division.
proportionally with cell size, and at smaller cell sizes, they do—more or less. But something changes at the far end of the scale. There seems to be an upper limit for spindle architecture (about 60 microns). So, Needleman asks, what does this mean? Is spindle size perfectly optimized to function in cells of different sizes, and if so, what makes that scaling optimal? Or do the observed variations reflect some sort of nonadaptive process? “What interests me most is how the kind of things that biology shows us can lead to new principles.
Right now is a very exciting time to be working in this area,” he says. “A lot of advances have been made, and many of the necessary tools have been produced. We don’t have the answers yet, but we have the tools to get there. And I think we will— very quickly.” When people think about bioengineering (especially biomedical engineering), they tend to jump to the bottom line, the practical applications: “What’s it going to cure?” “What’s it going to fix?” “What’s it going to replace?” But as former SEAS Dean Venkatesh “Venky” Narayanamurti explains: Bioengineering can mean many things. In the early days, it mainly referred to prostheses and devices—for example, replacement hips, stents to keep cardiac arteries open, etc. Bioengineering was about hardware that improved people’s lives, but it wasn’t really connected with the living system. Today, it’s much more than that. There’s a growing realization that engineering can learn things from biology, and vice versa. Indeed, biology has far more in common with engineering than with physics. Physics is a reductive science—nano- and everything else— but biology, like engineering, is about systems.
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Venky laid the foundations of SEAS bioengineering a decade ago, and he has good reason to be pleased with the results. Bioengineering has put down roots and grown. Between 2001 and 2010, the number of new Ph.D.s in engineering sciences grew robustly from 71 to 137, and bioengineers now make up about 13 percent of SEAS graduate students overall. And this fall Harvard College, in collaboration with SEAS, introduced a new undergraduate concentration in biomedical engineering as part of the Life Sciences cluster. Before the new millennium, however, Harvard’s applied sciences program had focused on two disciplines: applied physics and applied math. This new field of bioengineering had very different roots, emerging at the locus of engineering, biology, and chemistry. In 2000, when he began to build up SEAS’ bioengineering capability, Venky realized that the school first needed to invest in chemistry and chemical engineering.
Under Venky’s guidance, SEAS systematically hired people with chemical engineering backgrounds—including David Edwards, David Mooney, Vinny Manoharan, Debra Auguste, Kit Parker, and Joanna Aizenberg—building its nascent bioengineering program to focus on molecules, the common ground between chemistry (and chemical engineering) and molecular biology.
Former Dean Venkatesh “Venky” Narayanamurti planted the seeds of bioengineering at SEAS.
The potential for a strong bioengineering program also hinged on the synergy of developments in other disciplines, including physics, engineering, and computer science. “But the key,” Venky declares, “was getting the very best people.” He also notes the powerful benefits of being part of the larger University. “With a great medical school and various biology and applied sciences programs around us, there are great opportunities for collaboration. And not being saddled with a lot of the more traditional bioengineering baggage, we can start at the next phase of the evolution.” How will SEAS accomplish that? Venky believes that bioengineering at SEAS has a number of advantages. “We don’t have much in the way of the traditional biomedical engineering—designing prosthetics. These things are important. But for us, they’re really a different field. That’s not where SEAS has targeted its energies.”
At its heart, Venky explains, bioengineering is a basic science. Speaking with SEAS faculty who focus on bioengineering makes that clear. SEAS research focuses on basic understanding: how the body works, how genes work, how muscles work. “For us,” Venky says, “the excitement lies in this deeper connection between biology, the applied sciences, and engineering—especially chemical engineering but also applied physics and the computer sciences. With our open structure, we can embrace its fundamentally collaborative nature. That way we can not only advance biomedical engineering but also do something deeper: biologically inspired engineering.”
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courtesy of harvard microrobotics lab
Inspired by the biology of a bee and the insect’s hive behavior, researchers on the Micro Air Vehicles Project are developing tiny robotic insects. The NSF-funded project could have applications in search-and-rescue missions, military surveillance, and high-resolution weather and climate mapping.
The brain do a seatbelt.
Kevin Kit Parker, the Thomas D. Cabot Associate Professor of Applied Science and Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering, specializes in disease biophysics and hails from Tennessee. He also happens to be a major in the U.S. Army and has completed two tours of duty in Afghanistan. At SEAS, he declares, “We’re not generating people to populate the herd.” “Here,” he says, “the expectation is that you should be a leader, run out in front of the herd—on the cutting edge, where no one’s been before.” Parker sees incredible opportunities for people like himself—folks who thrive on the far edge of the known. New fields, he says, are less burdened by accumulated wisdom, so the potential for novel approaches and discoveries is greater. “When you come in with fewer cultural or disciplinary constraints, you have fewer restrictions,” he says. “Fields are constrained by their customs, and many times the really interesting stuff happens on the interfaces between fields—like biology and engineering.” The absence of departments at SEAS also fits Parker perfectly. “If you don’t have all those tribal boundaries,” he says, “then you can roam around. That’s the special mojo that Harvard has.” Collaborations are essential to the work that Parker does here. He leads the Disease Biophysics Group (DBG) at SEAS, works with the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, and is a member of the Systems Biology Program across the river at Harvard Medical School. On top of all that, he’s a core faculty member at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard. At Wyss, researchers are not interested in merely building on top of what biology has provided; they want to go right to the heart of the matter, figure out nature’s own design principles, and emulate that in the lab. Their work produces fishnet-like fabrics made entirely out of proteins, new ice-repellent materials, and tiny electronic models of human organs. Parker’s own interests are varied. One area that’s long fascinated him involves the scaling properties of the heart. When, he asks, do changes at the cellular level actually translate into—manifest themselves as—disease in an organ or an individual? “I don’t know that you can show me a diseased cell in the heart,” he says, “but put a bunch of abnormal cells together and you can show me the disease. So at what spatial scale does that disease emerge? And isn’t that where we should be targeting our therapeutic agents?”
rose lincoln/harvard news office
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Kit Parker’s Disease Biophysics Group studies the neurological effects of traumatic brain injury.
One goal of Parker’s lab is to understand how the heart builds itself—how cardiac muscle cells are organized, created, and replaced—with the goal of using that knowledge as a springboard to regenerative medicine, and ultimately, perhaps, creating replacement cardiac tissue. His group also works at the interface between the biotic and abiotic, developing new protein-based fabrics, for example. Such protein textiles might one day find use as wound dressings for burn victims. Beyond that, textiles that are strong, that don’t trigger an immune response, and that can be absorbed by the body once they’ve served their therapeutic function could have important surgical applications. It’s fair to say that Parker’s DBG lab likes to shake things up—particularly tissues. Another project his team is pursuing investigates the neurological effects of traumatic brain injuries, such as those experienced by soldiers caught in IED explosions.
The brain doesn’t wear a seatbelt. When something shakes the human body hard enough—whether it’s an explosion, a car accident, or a collision on the football field—the soft and delicate brain slams against the inner walls of the skull. The trauma sets off a whole cascade of neurological damage that, if not treated immediately, could manifest itself 10 years later as dementia, Parkinson’s, or Alzheimer’s disease. Parker’s team simulates the force of impact on live cells in the lab and then watches what happens over the first 30 seconds, the first 10 minutes, the first hour, from the level of the proteins up to the whole tissues. If researchers can develop a treatment that can be administered to a patient within that first 10 minutes—what Parker calls “the platinum 10” —perhaps more soldiers will make it home without the threat of developing a neurodegenerative disease whose genesis was on the battlefield.
In academia, we c about big things, the world. That’s
David Mooney designs materials that, when implanted in the body, could help program healthy cells to fight disease.
But, David Mooney cautions, even in new scientific realms the “eureka moments” are often few and far between—more often found in cartoons of mad professors with wildly tousled hair than in the slow, step-by-step march of real science. Mooney, the Robert P. Pinkas Family Professor of Bioengineering at SEAS, says: You get excited about the advances, but many of the things we’re working on are years away from any practical application. I’ll publish a paper, and hundreds of people will call or e-mail, saying, “I’m sick.” “My mom’s sick.” “Can you help us?” Often, it’s not so much that I think, “Another couple of years, and we could save that person.” I don’t know when it’ll be. But every day, I hope my contribution will help move things forward.
Mooney, 45, is the youngest of eleven children. His parents didn’t go to college, but in raising their children, they instilled the idea that everyone has an obligation to give something back, to help make the world a better place. His siblings are social workers and teachers, therapists, nurses, and medical workers. While Mooney does basic research, he very much sees himself upholding that family tradition. “In academia,” he says, “we can dream about big things, about changing the world. That’s really our job.” The Mooney Laboratory for Cell and Tissue Engineering focuses on how cells receive information from the materials they come into contact with. Using the tools of engineering and concepts from cell and molecular biology, the lab studies the mechanisms by which cells can sense and respond to chemical or mechanical signals. If we understand
can dream , about changing really our job.
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that, Mooney says, we may be able to use the knowledge as engineers—to build things. But he goes one step further: he wants to build inside the body. Mooney is working on ways to attract and program cells to fight disease. One potential application: cell-based cancer therapies. Mooney and his team have designed small polymer scaffolds that can be placed in the body. These scaffolds are “painted” with compounds that attract potential cancerfighting cells and then—via another set of chemical signals—program those cells to target cancer cells. The lab has shown that the programmed cells will then home in on lymph nodes where cancer cells have congregated.
“Designing materials that can program cells inside the body, that’s the premise,” Mooney says. “That’s my quest.” He believes in the premise and the quest. And working inside the body would allow him to do the most good: in experiments using mice, the Mooney lab has shown that the results are improved when the entire process is done in vivo, rather than partly outside the body. Mooney believes in the potential of bioengineering. “A lot of us go into academia to have freedom and not be bounded,” he observes. “In a field like bioengineering, there aren’t many walls to be bound by. And Harvard belongs here. We have this huge amount of clinical activity across the river. It’d be almost criminal for us not to be a leader in bioengineering.”
Sharad Ramanathan’s research earned him the prestigious NSF CAREER Award in 2010.
Sharad Ramanathan’s research focus involves “dramatic decisions.” He explains that cells and organisms make all kinds of decisions—for example, how to allocate resources, whether to go to the left or right or forward or backward, and whether to become part of your skin or bones. “I want to understand that underlying decision-making process,” he says. “How does it work? What’s its evolutionary history?” By looking at multiple systems, Ramanathan, 38, hopes to find patterns in the way cells and organisms interpret their environment and to better understand the role of past experiences in that interpretive process. “How do yeast cells respond to starvation? They can go quiet. They can make spores. Or they can make long filaments and dig in. Evolutionary fitness hinges on making the right decision. So how does a cell make that decision?” Ramanathan, an assistant professor of molecular and cellular biology, is a theoretical physicist by training but considers himself a biologist. He, too, works at the unsettled borders of bioengineering. Among other things, he studies the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans.
“It’s a virtually transparent worm,” he explains, “and has only 302 neurons, but it can do whatever it wants.” C. elegans has a long history of use as a model organism in biology. In 1998, it became the first multicellular organism to have its genome fully sequenced. Ramanathan has found that optical stimulation of specific roundworm neurons will produce characteristic avoidance behavior. “Can you imagine?” he says, “We’ve figured out how to activate and deactivate those neurons using light!” Ramanathan says. “If I could go back in time just five years and describe our experiments, everyone would think I was crazy.” More importantly, by exciting individual neurons while monitoring others, he ultimately hopes to map out the organism’s entire neural circuitry. “The goal is to go right into C. elegans’ brain and study its neural network with optical tools. Just 302 neurons makes it sound simple. But it’s not as easy as it sounds. Still, even if we fail, it’ll be interesting. Failure can be very informative.”
“The word ‘interdisciplinary’ is in vogue nowadays,” says Neel Joshi, “but we’ve taken it to an entirely new level.”
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is relatively new in town, having just arrived in january to join the seas bioengineering faculty. he’s never been to the harvard museum of natural history before. but he’s long known about oxford street, home to many of the heroes of his youth, the big guns of past scientific revolutions. and the redbrick buildings along oxford street still hold the vast collections they squirreled away.
Joshi explores the museum like a scientist, which means that he’s systematic and observant as he walks down the aisles. It also means that he breaks off sentences in mid-thought when something particularly catches his eye: the glass flowers that can’t possibly be made of glass, the massive specimens in the Hall of Mammals, or a display of bats. “Every time I see bats, I’m amazed by them,” he says, giving them his full attention. “Amazed because they learned to fly independently of birds and insects. The fact that nature could discover flight on separate independent occasions is remarkable…” His voice trails off as he continues walking, lost in thought. Joshi, 30, is an Assistant Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering at SEAS, as well as a Core Member of the faculty at Wyss. He grew up in Northern California; he used to have corn-rows and ride a motorcycle. He likes things that are cool, and right now it’s hard for him to imagine anything cooler than bioengineering. In his lab, he’s trying to mimic the process of evolution. Modeling and replicating evolution—even on a micro scale—is challenging, to say the least.
“Nature has two big advantages over us—a vast amount of biodiversity and huge chunks of time to select for given traits. Our ability to cram population-level diversity into the lab is pretty limited. But we have figured out ways to speed up the selection process,” he says. “We have figured out ways to physically link a protein to the gene that encoded it for billions of proteins simultaneously. Then we can select for the proteins that we want and extract out the genetic information. By doing this iteratively, we can mimic the natural process of evolution—so what may have taken many generations to happen in nature, we might be able to do in a few weeks.”
Nature has two big advantages over us —a vast amount of biodiversity and huge chunks of time to select for given traits.
Time feels like a good topic in this building. The museum is a sort of glass-case monument to the past, a time when scientists were spectators on the outside of biology. But things have changed. Molecular biology identified the constituents of the body’s machinery. The genomic revolution has opened the genetic components to analysis, en masse. Nano- and microtechnology are solving the problems of access. Now Joshi and his colleagues have an opportunity that would have been impossible a few years earlier: they can go into those living components as engineers—studying the clockwork, building new things, and making their own selections. One part of Joshi’s work involves tissue engineering, synthesizing protein scaffolds to support cell growth, which can then be implanted into the body to repair or replace a patient’s diseased or damaged tissues. Joshi’s postdoctoral work focused on developing complex dendrimeric macromolecules to serve as scaffolds for the creation of cartilage tissue. He explains that he can now generate billions of protein variants and select only the ones he wants. In other words, he can mimic nature. “The selection phase is the most important,” he says, giving the bats one last look. “You get what you select for.”
As a chemist, Joshi has always been fascinated by the border between things that are living and those smaller components that aren’t. But what’s surprising, he says, is that the smaller components may not do much on their own but often can work together to do some truly incredible things. Another of his research interests involves developing tools to aid in building bio-mimetic systems from the bottom up. Assembly—how biology uses the smaller building blocks to make “something much cooler than its parts”—is a major preoccupation. When he gave his first seminar on the subject, he used Transformers to get his point across. Joshi thinks that SEAS is just the right place for him. Like others, he points to the school’s openness, its lack of departments. If he’d gone into a straight chemistry department at some other school, he says, he’d be spending most of his time rubbing elbows with chemists. But at SEAS, the horizons—and his colleagues’ backgrounds and range of interests—are far broader. “The word ‘interdisciplinary’ is in vogue nowadays,” he says, “but we’ve taken it to an entirely new level.”
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Maurice Smith’s research on neuromotor control combines practical engineering with the human side of medicine.
Maurice Smith, Assistant Professor of Bioengineering, sits in the cafeteria of the Northwest Lab. On the table next to him are salt and pepper shakers, and a bottle of hot sauce. With his left hand, he moves them slightly. Smith is another of the young scientists who are probing the interstices between fields. And what he studies, he concedes, are “the most boring movements you could make and still call them movements.” As director of the Harvard Neuromotor Control Lab, Smith gives every new grad student “the talk.” He tells them, “I really appreciate that you came, but what we do here is incredibly boring. The experiments that we work on really aren’t all that interesting.” He wants to lower expectations from the get-go. He’s trying to build knowledge from the bottom up because when it comes to understanding how the brain controls movement, we’re still pretty clueless. Smith’s mother is a neonatologist, and growing up, he could see the emotional price it exacted. Every baby that didn’t make it took a personal toll. He viewed medicine as a potential profession but found that by nature he’s an engineer. As a student, he took a winding road to get there, earning both an M.D. and a Ph.D. and doing rotations in a couple of labs. Ultimately, he found his true path, drawn to bioengineering’s promise of melding practical, how-it-works engineering and the human side of medicine. The work he does is aimed at understanding the algorithms the human brain uses to control movement—in particular, how you modify that control through practice and learning. The results could have major implications for patient therapy. As a graduate student, he studied how certain disorders and neurological diseases cause movements to go awry.
“In the process, I learned just how little we know about when things are working right, when they’re normal. You need to understand how a motor system works—and learns—at an overview level. Today, there’s nothing smart in how people go about neuro-rehab. Very little science goes into it. It’s not that they ignore the science; there just isn’t all that much available.” So in the Neuromotor Control Lab they work backwards, trying to understand the basics of simple motor processes. The ultimate goal, he says, is to learn enough to be able to improve the way motor learning—and recovery—takes place. “Take stroke patients,” he says. “In general, people tend to recover. That’s fantastic. But even if you look at two people with equivalent or comparable strokes, you’ll find differences in how quickly they recover. There’s no reason to believe that what we’re seeing today is the fastest that people can recover from strokes.” Smith moves the hot sauce again. It’s boring, he says. Simplistic. But it’s a beginning, a foundation that will let the next generation, standing on his shoulders, achieve bigger things. He sees it happening already in his lab. It’s the best part of his day, he says, the intellectual give-and-take with the next generation —his grad students and post-docs. “‘Discussion’ is putting it mildly. ‘Arguments’ comes closer,” he says. “And that’s what I want. If you restrict yourself to talking about stuff you agree on, you’re not talking about anything. But if you take things to the edge? That’s how you get to something really interesting.”
Taking Research to the Edge
Bioengineering today represents an exceptionally interesting “edge.” And at SEAS an exceptional lot are making that edge their own. SEAS Dean Cherry Murray emphasizes the crucial need for what she calls “T-shaped people,” scientists whose knowledge is deep in a given field but who can also relate broadly —across scientific disciplines as well as to a wider public. SEAS bioengineers are doing that and more. Creative, charismatic, maybe a bit combustible, they’re upping the ante—spiking Murray’s “T” with a little TNT all their own—and proud of their part in something that’s come so far. Bioengineering has become integrated and institutionalized across Harvard’s sprawling campus—not just at SEAS, but also at the Wyss Institute and the Medical School. Throughout the University, the researchers are interested in not just incremental, short-term progress, but transformative change. And that’s the attitude that has carried bioengineering at SEAS from that glint in Venky’s eye to this exuberant adolescence. So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that the field shares more than a few traits with flesh-and-blood adolescents: a willingness to grapple with big questions, skepticism about the received wisdom, and irrepressible spontaneity.... You might well ask, what’s next? There’s no way to tell, but it’ll probably be something that— right now—sounds flat-out impossible.
Bio + Engineering + Harvard
SEAS, of course, does not have a lock on the field of bioengineering. That’s a good thing. The school’s success is, in part, thanks to the recent crop of related programs that span the University.
Systems Biology (Faculty of Arts and Sciences and Harvard Medical School) Systems biology aims to explain how higher-level properties of complex biological systems arise from the interactions among their parts. At the medical school in Boston, students can pursue a Ph.D. in systems biology in collaboration with the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. The FAS counterpart in Cambridge, which grew out of the Bauer Center for Genomics, provides shared facilities and expertise.
The Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering The Wyss Institute aims to discover the engineering principles that nature uses to build living things and to harness this knowledge to create biologically inspired materials, devices, and control technologies for medical and non-medical applications. Eight SEAS faculty serve as core members of the institute and Director Donald Ingber holds a faculty appointment at SEAS.
The Harvard Stem Cell Institute As the largest collaborative of its kind, the Harvard Stem Cell Institute is a truly unique scientific enterprise—a gathering place for a whole community of scientists and clinical experts in stem cell science seeking to bring new treatments to the clinic and new life to patients with a wide range of chronic illnesses.
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Once thought to be blind, the brittlestar (an echinoderm closely related to the starfish shown at left) uses its entire skeleton as a compound eye. A series of microlenses (above) work together to generate amazing optical performance, besting any human-made technologies. Harvard’s engineers and applied scientists take inspiration from nature every day, particularly in the lab of Joanna Aizenberg, Amy Smith Berylson Professor of Materials Science at SEAS and a core member of the Wyss Institute. Aizenberg, a pioneer in the field of biomimetics, has studied the intricately latticed glass skeleton of the Venus flower basket sea sponge; porous, self-assembling materials that imitate bone; and water- and ice-repellent surfaces that are inspired by the hairy legs of a water strider, a mosquito’s eyes, and even a bacterial biofilm. To read more about research in the Aizenberg lab, visit the SEAS e-Newsletter online, at
Rose Lincoln/Harvard News Office
courtesy of the aizenberg lab
Around Oxford Street
From mayonnaise to meat glue
This fall, faculty members Dave Weitz and Michael Brenner teamed up with more than a dozen culinary experts to create a new General Education course, “Science and Cooking: From Haute Cuisine to the Science of Soft Matter.” Created through a partnership with the Alícia Foundation, headed by acclaimed chef Ferran Adrià, the highly popular course uses food and cooking to explicate fundamental principles in applied physics and engineering. Tasty topics include: olive oil and viscosity, gelation, browning and oxidation, and even meat glue. The series earned coverage in The Boston Globe, The New York Times, El País, Business Week, and NBC’s The Feast.
Worked up an appetite? The “Science and Cooking” ancillary public lectures are available online at www.seas.harvard.edu/cooking.
Enhancing applied computational science
SEAS established a new Institute for Applied Computational Science this fall, with Efthimios (Tim) Kaxiras, John Hasbrouck Van Vleck Professor of Pure and Applied Physics, as Director. The plan is to collaborate with departments across Harvard to enhance existing courses and to make new ones available for all science and engineering graduate students. In the long term, IACS might offer formalized certificate programs and potentially new Master’s and Ph.D. degrees. Kaxiras uses sophisticated computation techniques in his research to spur advances with biomedical applications.
All hands, year two Cocoa-mobiles, robotic bees, and Le Whif
SEAS faculty lit up the tube in August and September with appearances on the Food Network and the New England Sports Network (NESN). Kit Parker, Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering, served as a guest judge on Food Challenge as four chefs competed to create delicate moving vehicles out of chocolate. Parker, a U.S. Army Major, also appeared on NESN’s Shining City to discuss his work on preventing long-term neurological damage from concussions in soldiers and athletes. The show, hosted by former Lt. Governor of Massachusetts Kerry Healey ’82, “celebrates science, technology, and innovations in the New England area.” Subsequent episodes of Shining City featured other SEAS faculty members: Robert J. Wood, Assistant Professor of Electrical Engineering; David A. Edwards, Gordon McKay Professor of the Practice of Biomedical Engineering; and John Briscoe, Gordon McKay Professor of the Practice of Environmental Engineering.
Couch potatoes: check out the SEAS e-Newsletter for links to the Shining City segments on YouTube, and for more information visit: www.seas.harvard.edu/shiningcity.
On September 10, Dean Cherry A. Murray kicked off the new year with her fourth All Hands Meeting. Emphasizing the School’s commitment to interdisciplinary study, breadth and depth of understanding, and collaborative research, she presented the new SEAS academic structure. With the appointment of area deans, Murray hopes to strengthen the core disciplines, enhance teaching and learning, and enforce program consistency, while continuing to support the interdisciplinary nature of faculty and student research.
Missed the meeting? Watch the video at: http://intranet.seas.harvard.edu/administration/all-hands.
In June, President Barack Obama appointed Dean Murray to the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling. The seven members of the Commission are investigating the causes of the April 2010 oil spill, providing recommendations for avoiding similar disasters in future, and collaborating on a public report due in January.
For more information on the Commission’s work, visit: www.oilspillcommission.gov.
Rabin wins $1 million Dan David Prize
Michael O. Rabin, Thomas J. Watson Sr. Professor of Computer Science, was honored at Tel Aviv University in May, in the presence of the President of the State of Israel, for massively influential achievements over the course of his career. He shared the honor with fellow computer scientists Gordon Moore and Len Kleinrock; the other winners included Italian President Giorgio Napolitano and authors Amitav Ghosh and Margaret Atwood.
Five students named 2011 Siebel Scholars
Five computer science students will each receive a $35,000 award for their final year of graduate studies at SEAS. Karim Atiyeh (M.S. candidate), Michael Lyons (Ph.D. candidate), Geoffrey Mainland (Ph.D. candidate), Rohan Murty (Ph.D. candidate), and Yinan Zhu ’11 (joint A.B./S.M. candidate) were honored at a reception with Dean Murray on October 7. Their innovative research explores subjects including facial recognition, CPU brains, and novel wireless networks.
courtesy of sOccket
sOccket ball wins Breakthrough Award
An eco-friendly soccer ball that charges a battery during game play has won Popular Mechanics’ annual Breakthrough Award. Jessica Lin ’09, Jessica O. Matthews ’10, Julia Silverman ’10, and Hemali Thakkar ’11 created the sOccket as undergraduates at Harvard College, with help from the engineering course ES 147, “Idea Translation.” The ball can provide up to three hours of LED light to people living in areas without reliable electricity.
hasse ferrold, iic
Hau named World Dane 2010
Lene Vestergaard Hau (above left), Mallinckrodt Professor of Physics and of Applied Physics, was named World Dane 2010 by global network Danes Worldwide at Kronborg Castle in Elsinore, Denmark, on August 1. The title, which has been awarded only twice before—to a soccer star and a pianist/composer—was given to Hau “for emphatically and persistently placing Denmark on the World map.”
Four faculty members win prestigious NSF CAREER Awards
Shriram Ramanathan, Assistant Professor of Materials Science, Yiling Chen, Assistant Professor of Computer Science, Sharad Ramanathan, Assistant Professor of Applied Physics and of Molecular and Cellular Biology, and Stephen Chong, Assistant Professor of Computer Science, all won the National Science Foundation’s Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award this past year. The honor is considered one of the most prestigious for up-and-coming researchers in science and engineering.
Around Oxford Street
With password security, popularity is everything
Unpopular passwords instead of strong ones can provide a better defense against statistical guessing attacks. Who: Michael D. Mitzenmacher, Area Dean and Gordon McKay Professor of Computer Science at SEAS, and Microsoft researchers Cormac Herley and Stuart Schechter. How it works: Forcing users to choose unpopular passwords instead of “strong” ones can provide a better defense against a type of attack known as statistical guessing. What’s next: For organizations with millions of users, such as email providers, the researchers propose a system that would count how many times any user on the service chooses a specific password. When more than a few users picked the same password, that password would become banned for others.
harvard microrobotics lab
Shape-shifting sheets automatically fold into multiple forms
Researchers have devised flat sheets of programmable matter that can fold themselves like origami. Who: Robert J. Wood, Assistant Professor of Electrical Engineering and Core Member of the Wyss Institute; Hiroto Tanaka, Postdoctoral Fellow at SEAS; and Elliot Hawkes ’09 (S.B.); with collaborators from MIT. How it works: The sheets, thin composites of rigid tiles and elastomer joints, are studded with thin foil actuators (motorized switches) and flexible electronics. A shape is produced by triggering the proper actuator groups in sequence. What’s next: The long-term aim is to make programmable matter more robust and practical, leading to materials that can perform multiple tasks. Besides medical applications, the team envisions creating “smart” cups that could adjust based upon the amount of liquid needed or even a “Swiss army knife” that could reform into numerous tools. Visit www.seas.harvard.edu to watch a flat sheet fold itself into a boat and then a plane.
adam w. feinberg, ph.d.
Protein nanofabrics stretch the limits of materials
A new protein matrix simulates the elasticity of living tissue, offering applications in regenerative medicine and high-performance textiles. Who: Kevin “Kit” Parker (Thomas D. Cabot Associate Professor of Applied Science and Associate Professor of Bioengineering at SEAS, a core faculty member of the Wyss Institute, and a member of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute), with Postdoctoral Fellow Adam W. Feinberg (now an Assistant Professor at Carnegie Mellon University). How it works: The new fabric is made from the same proteins as normal tissue; thus, the body can degrade it with no ill effects once it is no longer needed. The material may help heal wounds and regenerate damaged tissues and organs. What’s next: By altering the type of protein used in the matrix, researchers will be able to manipulate thread count, fiber orientation, and other properties to create fabrics with extraordinary capabilities.
New Faculty Hires
Katia Bertoldi, Assistant Professor of Applied Mechanics
Bertoldi’s research involves the use of continuum mechanics and applied mathematics to model the mechanical behavior of novel materials at the small scale, such as nano-composites and biological composites.
courtesy of yue m. lu
Yue M. Lu, Assistant Professor of Electrical Engineering
Lu’s teaching and research interests are in the area of mathematical signal processing. He explores the broad themes of representation, sampling, and processing of multidimensional signals, with applications ranging from wireless communications to sensor networks and computational imaging.
Neel S. Joshi, Assistant Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering
Joshi uses his research background in protein chemistry and polymeric materials synthesis to develop new methods for controlling the spatial and temporal arrangement of self-assembling systems..
Chad D. Vecitis, Assistant Professor of Environmental Engineering
Vecitis’ research investigates the environmental chemistry of single-walled carbon nanotubes (SWNTs). He is currently studying the SWNT anti-microbial mechanism, as well as engineering SWNT-based structures for water treatment.
David Brooks and Matt Welsh have been granted tenure and are now Gordon McKay Professors of Computer Science. Gu-Yeon Wei has been granted tenure and named Gordon McKay Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. Jonathan Zittrain, a Harvard Law School Professor and leading scholar on the legal and policy issues surrounding the Internet, now holds a joint appointment as Professor of Computer Science at SEAS—the first such HLS–SEAS partnership. Michael Brenner, Glover Professor of Applied Mathematics and Applied Physics, has been awarded a Harvard College Professorship in recognition of his outstanding contributions to undergraduate teaching, advising, and mentoring.
Alumni Aiming High
Stephanie D. Wilson ’88, a member of the Harvard Board of Overseers, launched into space for the third time this past April on the space shuttle Discovery. Wilson joined NASA in 1996 and flew her first mission a decade later. She is the second African-American woman ever to fly in space. Hank Chien ’96, a plastic surgeon in Queens, NY, jumped and climbed his way to a record 1,061,700 points in the Donkey Kong arcade game in February. Chien’s dazzling feat was confirmed by Twin Galaxies, the official score keeper of electronic games.
Around Oxford Street
The Applied Math Innovation Fund, established by an anonymous donor, will enable SEAS to address the growing demand for the applied math discipline by augmenting advising staff and hiring the most innovative and highly effective teachers. The Technology and Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard (TECH) received donations from Tom McKinley (A.B. ’74); Michael Cronin (A.B. ’75, M.B.A. ’77); Robert Kristoff (A.B. ’74); Thomas Quirk (A.B. ’74, M.B.A. ’78); Michael Noble (A.B. ’74); and Walter (A.B. ’74) and Cathy Isaacson. Herbert “Pug” Winokur (A.B. ’65, A.M. ’65, Ph.D. ’67) and his wife, Deanne, established a current-use fund that will be used to support fellowships for graduate students. A gift from R. Martin Chavez (A.B. ’85, S.M. ’85) will be used to support fellowships for graduate students who are working at the intersection of economics and computer science. SEAS also received flexible-use annual gifts from Andrew Garman (A.B. ’80); David Lloyd Gilmour (A.B. ’80, S.M. ’82, M.B.A. ’84) and Anula K. Jayasuriya (A.B. ’80, M.D. ’84, Ph.D. ’91); Gwill York (A.B. ’79, M.B.A. ’84) and Paul Maeder (M.B.A. ’84); Bob (A.B. ’76, S.M. ’76, M.B.A. ’79, J.D. ’80) and Susie Case (A.B. ’79, S.M. ’79, M.B.A. ’83); and Kathryn Ann Hopkins (A.B. ’80, M.B.A. ’84).
Discover More Online
Meet other bioengineers!
View the SEAS e-Newsletter : www.seas.harvard.edu/topics
Video: Kit Parker discusses his research on NESN’s Shining City Building a bioengineer from the ground up Q&A with alumna Amy Kerdok (Ph.D. ’06) A closer look at Joanna Aizenberg’s inverse opals Become a fan of SEAS http://www.facebook.com/hseas http://twitter.com/hseas http://digg.com/HarvardSEAS http://HarvardSEAS.tumblr.com
Innovation doesn’t just happen by itself.
The evolution of bioengineering at SEAS, as explored in this issue, is a perfect case in point. More than a decade ago, my predecessor, Venkatesh “Venky” Narayanamurti took a major risk in ramping up faculty and resources to explore the realm where physics and chemistry meet biology. His aim was not to outdo the world’s existing bioengineering programs on sheer scale or to beat those already dominant in the medical device arena. Instead, he began to hire a different kind of researcher —one like Daniel Needleman, a physicist who studies the mechanics of living cells. His research sits comfortably between departments and across schools. As a result, bioengineering has found a growing niche at SEAS, and it has grown precisely because we have focused on finding common ground between the disciplines and viewing entire biological systems in a new light. Consider the last few years: the RoboBees NSF grant. The creation of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard. The debut of a new dedicated, undergraduate biomedical engineering concentration this past fall. Our success in bioengineering—achieved by taking the unconventional route and hiring as much for passion as for expertise—leads me to consider how we can apply that same attitude today. How do we train our students to be willing to take risks like that?
Dean Cherry A. Murray
As an engineering school, we have the opportunity to address a number of demands: Fostering creativity in the classroom, particularly when every fact is just a search-engine click away. Balancing the spirit of freewheeling innovation with structured teaching. After all, we prefer our student entrepreneurs to stick around long enough to get their degrees! Bringing Harvard’s professional schools into the lives of our students. Creating an environment in which our graduate students and faculty feel safe taking risks in their research. And ultimately, helping our faculty and students to translate an entirely new idea into something tangible and meaningful.
In short, while we need to guide students with expertise, we also need to inspire them to be adaptive and creative. With the launch of a new Innovation Lab based at Harvard Business School, we are going in the right direction. Just as the Innovation Lab will connect entrepreneurial teams from across the University, we need to continue to find ways to break down the rigid barriers between academic departments. And nurturing bioengineering at SEAS is a great way to do that.
Cherry A. Murray
Dean, Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences John A. and Elizabeth S. Armstrong Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences Professor of Physics email@example.com
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