Bringing Convergence to Life

Bringing Convergence to Life

The impact of interdisciplinary work in life sciences

Picture an introductory course co-taught by a biologist and a bioengineer. To get students thinking about how to create a better insulin pump, for example, the biologist might first help students understand the role of pancreatic islet cells in the body. As students learn about sugar spikes, they realize that such a pump can’t just deliver insulin at a constant rate; it has to adjust to the body’s fluctuations. The bioengineer then leads the students in a discussion that probes how to sense glucose levels. How might an implantable sensor be designed? How can these sensors transmit wireless signals to the insulin pump to dose the right amount of insulin every hour or every minute?

“By blurring the boundaries between disciplines in a foundational course such as this,” says bioengineering professor Prashanth Asuri, “we can expose students to areas of study they might want to pursue in future courses.” As students see the possibilities, they acquire skills in multiple disciplines in what becomes a four-year journey. “By the time they reach their senior year, they might then have the background necessary not only to conceptually design a better insulin pump, but to actually develop such a device.”

While Santa Clara’s STEM initiative focuses on bringing together multiple disciplines, it also expands and deepens connections with the rest of the University. “Our liberal-arts grounding gives us the resources to make deep connections between scientific ideas and their broader impacts,” says Amelia Fuller, professor of chemistry and biochemistry.

This applies to the professional schools as well. “If engineers and scientists talk with students from the law school
or the business school,” says Asuri, “they’ll be better equipped to develop products that have an economic value as well as a societal benefit. They can start thinking ahead to issues involving intellectual property and public policy.”

The best research depends on low walls between disciplines—and the new STEM complex will shrink them even further. Professor Fuller brings students from her introductory organic chemistry class together with students from her research lab to prepare and evaluate the biological activity of synthetic molecules. Vikrum Jain ’16, a student in her lab, relies on this collaboration between departments. “If I need help analyzing the purity or identity of a compound I just synthesized, I work with Professor Fuller to understand the instrument and its data. When I develop protocols for the biological evaluation of the molecules synthesized in her lab, I seek guidance from faculty in the biology department.” The ultimate aim of Jain’s research is to synthesize and evaluate inexpensive, biologically active molecules that can be used as antimicrobial agents.

The best research depends on low walls between disciplines—and the new STEM complex will shrink them even further.

In Professor Asuri’s tissue culture lab, bioengineering major Sabrina Cismas ’16 works to develop 3D architectures that can suspend cells within a biomaterial that simulates the environment within the human body. This opens up immense territory for research into how cells behave and requires collaboration among biologists, bioengineers, and biophotonics experts. Together, they can devise ways to image what occurs at the microscale. “The very definition of STEM convergence implies novel applications and finding ways theoretical disciplines can fit together to advance and complement one another to create the next generation of high-utility products,” says Cismas.

Currently, faculty and students from different disciplines seek one another out when the need arises, but Asuri sees greater problem-solving potential ahead. “If there were a convergence of disciplines from the get-go—if I shared the same floor with an electrical engineer and a biochemist and a computational scientist, because of what we wanted to do in terms of research—the ideas would come together much more readily.”

Prashanth Asuri is an assistant professor of bioengineering at SCU.

Amelia Fuller is Clare Booth Luce Associate Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry at SCU.