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Biology and Engineering Are the Next Creative Science Convergence

Scientists, educators and policymakers must find more ways to collaborate across disciplines if they want to leverage the convergence of biology and engineering, the scientifice community's next big pursuit, said AAAS President Susan Hockfield. | Professional Images Photography

If the story of the late 20th century was about the fruitful marriage of physics and engineering — bringing us everything from the smartphone to nuclear power — the story of the 21st century might well be about the convergence of biology and engineering, said AAAS President Susan Hockfield at the 2018 AAAS Annual Meeting.

In her presidential address, Hockfield said that scientists are already exploring creative crossovers like virus-built batteries and water filters that use molecular water channels gleaned from bacteria. These types of discoveries, she said, are needed to serve a global population expected to reach 9.5 billion people by 2050.

“How are we going to advance our technology fast enough to get us out of the dilemma of needing to feed, water and provide health care to this kind of population?” Hockfield asked. “The progress that we’ve seen in the past often comes when disciplines intersect and converge in new ways.”

Hockfield said events such as the discovery of the electron in 1897 completed a “parts list” of the physical world that could then be re-imagined and reassembled into a variety of applications. Before these component parts were available, she noted, it would have been impossible to conceive of radar or air travel or computers.

Advances in molecular biology and genomics in the late 20th and early 21st centuries have led to a similar parts list for biology “that is now being picked up by engineers,” she suggested.

Battery components developed by MIT researcher Angela Belcher, for example, use viruses that coat themselves in iron phosphate and assemble into wires that connect to conductors. The process is efficient and non-toxic, making the batteries a lightweight and sustainable possibility for future energy storage.

“Now whether this is the technology that wins or not, it’s an example of how using the biology parts list for an engineering problem can give us a solution to one of the most daunting problems that face us,” said Hockfield.

Hockfield said scientists, educators and policymakers have many barriers to breach if they want to leverage the convergence of biology and engineering. To start, researchers need more opportunities to collaborate with colleagues outside their disciplines to share a common language and common goals in their work.

At MIT, where Hockfield served as the first woman president of the institution from 2004 to 2012, The Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research has been deliberate about blurring the lines between researchers, even to the point of bringing physicians, biologists and engineers together in shared lab space and shared cafes in their new building, she noted.

Since the Institute launched in 2011, there have been 50 new biotechnology and medicine companies born out of the collaborations, she said, and 11 of the companies now have products in clinical trials.

Increased federal funding for basic research, including flexible funding that allows greater collaboration between federal science agencies, can spur convergence as well, Hockfield said. But federal funding of basic research in the U.S. has dropped relative to GDP since its peak in the 1960s, “and this is not a recipe for success.”

Hockfield, a professor of neuroscience at MIT, also shared a photo of a second-grade school assignment — a carefully lettered paragraph by “Suzy Hockfield” on why science would be a good career. Suzy wrote she was inspired then and now by how the launch of the Sputnik satellite and the U.S. lunar program “provided an ambition and ethos” about science that permeated throughout society.

“I did not experience Sputnik as a shadow, but as a bright beacon of hope and excitement,” she said.

Before the presidential address, Gregory Fenves, the president of The University of Texas at Austin and a local co-chair for the Annual Meeting and Austin Chamber of Commerce Senior Vice President Drew Scheberle spoke about Austin’s plans to encourage innovation and technology development at home.

Barbara Schaal, chair of the AAAS Board, opened the evening’s event by presenting the 2018 Philip Hauge Abelson Prize and the 2017 AAAS Newcomb Cleveland Prize.

[Associated image: Professional Images Photography]