Doug Lauffenburger reflects on time as inaugural biological engineering department head
Lauffenburger: ‘You be the person that you really want to be’
Doug Lauffenburger, the Ford Professor of Bioengineering, has led MIT’s biological engineering department since its inception in 1998. The School of Engineering announced in February that Lauffenburger would be stepping down after twenty years as head of Course 20, to be succeeded July 1 by Professor Angela Belcher.
The Tech sat down with Lauffenburger last week to discuss the evolution of the department and the highlights of his tenure as department head.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
The Tech: I was wondering if we could start by talking about the early days of the department, what motivated you and others to start this department, and some of the challenges involved.
Doug Lauffenburger: It was the mid 90s when I got here, 1995, and MIT at that point decided it wanted to start a new bioengineering program — likely to turn into a department. And what it wanted to do was something that was special for MIT and different than had ever been done before, and that is to ground bioengineering in modern molecular and cell biology.
So this was the idea of a number of faculty who were at MIT — I was not, I was at University of Illinois — it was Al Grodzinsky, Roger Kamm, Bill Deen, Linda Griffith, and Paul Matsudaira, from all sorts of different departments. I was recruited because I was already half an engineer and half of a cell biologist. At Illinois I had appointments in both departments, so I was really kind of at this interface.
And it was really exciting because it was very grassroots. The faculty figured out the vision that we wanted; the students were very heavily involved. And so, the faculty came together and proposed to the administration that we create this new biology-based engineering discipline. It was very exciting times because it's really neat when you have faculty and students buy into a vision, and can get administrative support.
And it was also exciting because it was revolutionary. MIT was the perfect place to do it because MIT has often created new engineering disciplines. If you look at the history of electrical engineering or chemical engineering, there's good arguments to be made that they were founded at MIT. We think it's true that biological engineering, our version of it, is being born here, and that other institutions will start picking it up — they already are.
TT: Why did they want to recruit someone from the outside to come and head the department?
Lauffenburger: That's a good question. It's not obvious. I think one reason might have been, none of the people here felt comfortable cutting across all these disciplines. They didn't want it to be the case that it was some specific department that was creating this. So having somebody coming from the outside who wasn't necessarily affiliated with one of those departments was probably safer. And gives it a fresh start.
TT: Over the course of these 20 years, what do you think your greatest accomplishment as department head has been?
Lauffenburger: I think it's probably threefold. One is establishing this new discipline itself. The entire world is now aware of biology-based engineering. Many other institutions are trying to emulate us and create engineering much more grounded in molecular and cellular life sciences, and in ‘omics technology. So it's nice to see a vision have impact on the world and spread.
Secondly the faculty that we've recruited here are really outstanding, both in research and in teaching. And so it's really gratifying that we've built a community of faculty who are very committed to this vision.
And then most importantly, which I saved for last, is the students who have come through the program and just the spectacular things that they are out doing. Creating companies, taking leadership roles within established larger companies, going into academia and becoming faculty and helping develop other departments along these lines. Some are in government policy helping shape how government and the public are viewing this new kind of engineering. In the end, if you're in academia it's all about the students because that's where you have your biggest impact.
TT: And then on a similar note, if you could be remembered for just one thing, what would it be?
Lauffenburger: Well, I've always tried in my life to say, "Whatever I'm going to be a part of, can I make it a better place than it was, because I was there?" And I'd like to believe that was true here: that MIT is a better place because we've built this department and this community, that bioengineering is a stronger and more impactful field because of what we've created here, that I might have had a favorable influence on faculty and students’ lives and careers. So just the feeling that this part of the world that I've lived in for 20 years — if I've made it a better place, then that's what I'm most proud of.
TT: On the flip side, how do you think the department has shaped you as a person and as a principal investigator?
Lauffenburger: So one thing that's just true of all of us faculty here at MIT is MIT makes us better researchers, for one, because the students are so creative and ambitious. We get pushed to think of more and more interesting things alongside them. And colleagues are so good in their various respective fields that our research just gets stronger with more faculty and collaborations. We actually become better teachers too, because the students again are inquisitive and smart and hardworking and we've got to be at our best to keep moving forward in the classroom too. And I think I've also learned a lot in trying to help lead the creation of this new kind of engineering. We've built in a lot of elements from previously established disciplines, and trying to figure out all the right elements has been intellectually challenging.
TT: It's interesting because I know Professor Griffith doesn’t like BE being called an “interdisciplinary field”, but it does involve many different disciplines.
Lauffenburger: Well, it arose out of multiple disciplines in order to be established as a new discipline. I always like to appeal to historical analogy: there was a time one hundred years ago when chemical engineering didn't exist. There was mechanical engineering and there was chemistry. And a chemical industry was growing up, and it said, “Well, we need people who can think about creating technologies out of chemistry.” It wasn't really the chemist per se, because they weren't really taught as engineers how to create products and technologies, and it wasn't mechanical engineers per se, because they really didn't know molecules and chemistry. So chemical engineering had to exist by pulling some things out of chemistry and some things out of mechanical engineering and then figuring out how to fuse them in a new way. Well we've done the same thing. We started with biology, and then certain elements from chemical and electrical engineering and computer science and so forth, and figured out what were the right ideas and approaches from each of those. But it's created a new discipline. A new discipline doesn't just arise out of nothing. It’s not the Book of Genesis. You've got building blocks and you figure out how to put them together, but you put them together in a very coherent and unique way.
TT: What would you say is your favorite aspect of the BE department?
Lauffenburger: I love the students, I just do. Just getting to know you folks, your ambitions, your aspirations. A research grant might or might not get funded, a paper might or might not get accepted, but at the end of the day, just interacting with that whole range of students — undergraduate, graduate, postdocs — and just having some involvement in helping them get where they want to go. That's so satisfying.
TT: If you could tell one thing to all of the BE department students, to hold onto as they go through life, what would it be?
Lauffenburger: I would say, “You be the person that you really want to be.” And by that I mean — more than the professional, scientific, or technical sense — how are you treating people? How are you interacting with people? Be the person you want to be and don't let that get subsumed or damaged by ambition to succeed or accomplish. You see too many people that get so focused on success and accomplishment in whatever form, that they distort themselves as people, and they don't treat the people around them well, and they lose edges of integrity or kindness. So I would say don't lose track of the kind of person you want to be.
TT: What are you looking forward to for the future of bioengineering?
Lauffenburger: I'm excited about what's going to happen because I think the world is just now catching on, from the 20 years of students going out and accomplishing things in industry, in academia, in government. The world is starting to catch on about how powerful this education is — your skill sets and your ideas. So I think it's only going to expand and I think that there's another force driving that, and that is the power of biology as a science and biological technologies. The world has problems that are only going to be addressed effectively by those, and so the world is going to increasingly need people with biological engineering education. Whether the number of students in the major will increase dramatically, I don’t know. We could look up 30 years from now and it might be one of the largest departments on campus. It wouldn't be impossible given the role of biotechnology in the world. But that's not really the criteria. It's really more for impact. And I'm certain we're going to have impact — medicine, health care; more broadly, agriculture, nutrition, environment, energy. That's what's going to be fun to watch.
TT: And what does the future hold for you? What's the next big project you're going to tackle now that you've stepped down?
Lauffenburger: You know, I don't know. A couple of things: I'm not retiring, and I'm not leaving MIT, and in fact I'm not even going on a sabbatical leave for the foreseeable future because I don't know what I would do on sabbatical and I don't want to waste it. Right now I'm looking forward to teaching more, because it's hard as a department head to teach as much as you'd like. So I've been helping Eric Alm boot up a new class in computational biology — Complex Biological Data Analysis, and I'm excited about that. Linda Griffith and I are really going to try to build up this developmental biology, cell, and tissue engineering class that she started. And I'll have more time to pay closer attention to my research lab. We'll see if the students find that beneficial or not, but I will have more time to look closely into the things that they're working on.
TT: Anything else you want to share?
Lauffenburger: My appreciation for the faculty, students, and colleagues. It's been a big partnership, a community, a team.
Editor’s Note: The reporter is a senior in the Biological Engineering department.