MIT class trips to fascinating places where mechanical engineering affects biology

Even for a second-year doctoral student studying the mechanics of living cells, the influence of physical forces in the world of living beings is a source of wonder.

“I did my undergraduate studies in mechanical engineering, and ever since I started getting interested in cells, I find it fascinating to see them as delicate ‘machines’,” says Haiqian Yang. “Cells are ‘intelligent’ for sure, but I believe they cannot escape physical laws. Where is the limit? Are there fundamental laws governing structure formation and multicellular dynamics, just like these basic thermodynamic laws? These fascinating questions motivate me.

Last fall, Yang took course 2.788 (Mechanical Engineering and Design of Living Systems), which allowed her to step back and “learn the missing pieces that complete my complete picture of my field of study.” , he said.

“Not only did this course teach me all the exciting new topics in this field that I didn’t know about before,” says Yang, “it also convinced me even more that there are huge opportunities where I can potentially do a difference. .”

Understanding the mechanics of biology can take researchers in a wide variety of different directions and provide students new to the concept with plenty of opportunities to wonder. Intracellular mechanical forces can impact processes such as cancer metastasis, neurological pathology, and vascular disease. At the same time, the cell structure and mechanics of a butterfly’s wing or a bird’s feather may explain not only the creature’s color and shimmer, but also its survival when exposed to the heat or humidity. And the geometry of the cells that help renew the human gut — their curvature and relative locations — explains much of their behavior in the body. Such examples are countless.

The study of such phenomena and their modeling could lead to technological solutions in fields ranging from health to building materials.

Ming Guo, Class of ’54 Career Development Professor and Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering at MIT, co-teaches 2.788 with Mathias Kolle, Rockwell Professor of Career Development and Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering at MIT. Guo’s background is primarily in physics and engineering, but while studying for his doctorate at Harvard University, he began taking courses in cell biology and biophysics. Similarly, Kolle says, “I am an undergraduate and graduate trained physicist, turned materials scientist, mechanical engineer, and biology enthusiast through experience, exposure, and choices made out of curiosity.”

In 2017, the two teachers started planning the course.

“We had this idea,” says Guo, “that there are no courses teaching the engineering aspects of biological systems, whereas this field has developed very quickly. It was therefore urgent to teach the latest ideas and knowledge to students who might be interested in this vast subject.

At the same time, research from the National Science Foundation Center of Emerging Behavior of Integrated Cellular Systems, led by Roger Kamm, Cecil and Ida Green Distinguished Professor of Biological and Mechanical Engineering, had shown that there was a need for such a class .

“The idea was that several universities would each agree to teach a course, make it available to other institutions online, and that we would use these courses as a means of developing and disseminating teaching materials on multicellular living systems. “, explains Kamm. “We had success with this model, but it wasn’t until Ming and Mathias came on the scene that things really started to gel. The course that they developed, with some encouragement from me, really brought together all the different aspects of our center’s research and rolled it into one course that they – with the help of my center staff – could offer in three institutions. The course was, in my opinion, a huge success and the number of classes has increased every year.

“Roger Kamm has been a strong supporter of our educational efforts from the start,” says Kolle. “He was happy to act as a sounding board when we designed the classroom and is also actively involved in setting the broader framework for the field and research at MIT in his guest lecture, which he gives at the start of our class every time since we started in 2018.

For students, the Mechanical Engineering and Life Design course presents untapped worlds to discover, due to the relative novelty of the cross-disciplinary field.

“Ming and Mathias were highlighting concepts or phenomena that are really not well understood – the point being that if you’re curious, it’s something you might think about or look at,” says second-year PhD student Gunnar Thompson. . student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who took the course remotely. “Obviously I wasn’t interested in every subject, but this enthusiasm for what’s new or undiscovered inspired me.”

Thompson, whose research involves using biomaterials known as hydrogels to study the impact of physical and chemical factors on blood stem cells, was one of two universities other than MIT participating. Georgia Tech students are also taking the course.

Julie Shen, who is finishing her master’s degree in mechanical engineering at MIT and heading towards a doctorate, says the class gave her a new perspective on living creatures. Shen does research on medical devices for the cardiovascular system, but her job has never been in a biology lab. In 2788 she conducted experiments with jellyfish.

“I didn’t think I could do this with my life,” she says. “The course really made me curious about other subjects in our field. There are so many interesting things happening between mechanical engineering and biology, and both professors were really enthusiastic about every subject they taught.

The possible applications of knowledge gained from the study of mechanical engineering forces at work in living systems are endless. Guo, referring to the potential “to use the engineering principles we learn from biology to build new biological machines to help humanity, improve our quality of life, or improve our medical experiences,” points to his favorite discovery. This involves seeing how cells regulate their physical properties during tumor growth and invasion, such as the observation that cells that are softer and more swollen with fluid are more likely to form “invasive tips” that detach to spread elsewhere.

“This has been my favorite lately because it highlights the extremely complex spatial and temporal interactions and regulations of individual cells in developing tissue, while revealing the simple and pretty physical principles that have a strong influence on the biological development,” says Guo. “This gives us hope to regulate biological behaviors in the future.”

Kolle, who points out that “biology is really good at controlling material structures,” says that in the biological optical materials he studies, “the control of material structure is unparalleled by human material synthesis approaches.” In general, he views tissue engineering for the human body as a “great global challenge – in fact, probably better said, a myriad of different challenges”. Such tissues could “either encourage our bodies to perform well where it needs that encouragement, or replace failing parts.”

“There is still so much we don’t know about the complexity of the human body and life in general and how all the different parts work together when they work well or don’t work when they fail in one way. one way or another.”

Asked about his favorite discovery, Kolle lists the research projects his students are pursuing – Ben Miller’s color dynamics materials, Anthony McDougal’s insights into butterfly scale formations, work that Sara Nagelberg and Hannah Feldstein have done on fluid microlenses, and the work of Joseph Sandt. installation of colorimetric tire pressure sensors.

“My favorite discovery at MIT is that the best things that come out of my lab grow in the minds of my students,” Kolle says.

According to everyone involved, the excitement and potential for such research is coming through loud and clear in 2.788.

“The course certainly helped me better understand the current state of research in biological mechanics,” says Joseph Bonavia, Senior Mechanical Engineer, “and helped me appreciate it better.”