By training, Mary Lidstrom is a biologist. By choice, she operates as an engineer. The advantages of combining both fields are just too great to pass up, she says.
“I really like the problem-solving approach that engineers have,” said Lidstrom, a biology and chemical engineering professor and associate dean for new initiatives in engineering at the UW. “And there is a tremendous opportunity for interdisciplinary work across the technology-biology boundary. But you have to have the basic education to support those initiatives, or you won’t have the workforce to do the research.”
It’s a message that Lidstrom has been endeavoring to pass along to UW students for the past two years via a federally funded program to teach biology to engineering undergraduates. Recently, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (http://www.hhmi.org/ ) announced that her efforts will get a major boost.
Lidstrom is one of 20 top researchers nationwide named in the institute’s first group of Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professors. Each will receive a $1 million grant over the next four years to bring the creativity and expertise they have shown in the lab to the undergraduate classroom.
Methods for the teaching of science at universities often lag behind the quickly advancing pace of research, according to Thomas R. Cech, president of the institute. The Professors Program is an effort to change that by forging a closer bond between the two.
“Research is advancing at a breathtaking pace, but many university students are still learning science the same old way, by listening to lectures, memorizing facts and doing cookbook lab experiments that thousands have done before,” Cech said. “We want to empower scientists at research universities to become more involved in breaking the mold and bringing the excitement of research to science education.”
In Lidstrom’s case, the funding will allow her to expand her current program to reach more students on a greater variety of fronts. Her class introduces biology from a systems engineering perspective — nature is the designer and evolution is the design tool. Students first explore how things work, then they examine the parts.
“Right now, we offer the course just once a year, so just 20 students can take it,” she said. “We will expand that to three quarters each year and triple the number of students.”
In addition, she said she will develop more academic pathways into the engineering departments on campus so students in all the different majors have an avenue to combine biology with their studies.
“We will also be providing opportunities for undergraduate research at the engineering-biology boundary,” she said. “The applications are tremendous, not only in the biomedical area, like genomics, but also in materials science, bioengineering, chemical engineering, computer science — almost every field is being touched.”