Monday, November 27, 2006

Genetics and engineering   posted by the @ 11/27/2006 12:45:00 AM

Wanted: Biologists who can speak 'math,' engineers fluent in genetics

Biologists, computer scientists and engineers speak different languages: Mention "vector" to a molecular biologist and a plasmid (a circular piece of bacterial DNA used in gene cloning) comes to mind. Say "vector" to an engineer, and she thinks of a mathematical concept. Similarly with "expression": To a biologist, it means protein production from a gene; to an engineer, it's an equation.

Cute, but there's discussion of more serious topics.

Lidstrom, who conducts an elective biology class for engineers, has found that biologists are motivated by the "what," while engineers are motivated by the "how." She told a room packed with MIT students and faculty that "engineering students tend to view biology as magic because they don't see us using differential equations. And often they don't even necessarily want to understand the 'what' of biology--they just want to use it.

I'm not sure that helpfully describes the situation, but there's a more interesting question. How do you teach engineers biology (esp. genetics)? The undergrad classes run out of Lewis-Sigler at Princeton seem like a good move in the opposite direction: training natural scientists in quantitative thinking.