MRM Insights: When engineers and biologists
Every month, in MRM Insights, a member of the MRM Network is writing about stem cells and regenerative medicine from a different perspective. This month, Dr. Christopher Moraes, Associate Professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering at McGill University and Canada Research Chair in Advanced Cellular Microenvironments, talks about when engineers and biologists
MRM Insights: When engineers and biologists
My research program has always been right in the middle of engineering, biology, and regenerative medicine. We’re not experts in any of these things, but we know enough to get by in each. I formally trained as an engineer myself, and was co-supervised by advisers from two very different academic backgrounds. It was a difficult but rewarding experience, and since then, I have worked in close collaboration with biology-oriented groups on all our research areas. Almost every paper we’ve published has been after we’ve found the right people to work with, and I’m very proud of the things we’ve accomplished together, particularly with other members of the MRM network. As just one example, we’ve spent the last few years at McGill exploring and exploiting a design loop in which we build technologies to quantify and predict mechanical forces that are present during tissue development; and then build stem cell culture systems to recreate those forces and see how they affect cell fate and function. This simple strategy has so far allowed us to improve differentiation/function in placental trophoblasts (for improved drug screening platforms) and pancreatic proto-beta cells (as a potential therapeutic cell manufacturing strategy), with hopefully other exciting contributions to come.
Collaborating has led us to some really exciting work, that neither participating research group would have developed or even dreamed up on their own. I also understand that “interdisciplinary collaboration” (whatever that might actually mean) is a highly desirable grant and funding attribute, and it looks great on a LinkedIn CV, so there is certainly quite a lot of pressure to form these partnerships. On paper, we have some great examples of collaborative research, but despite these successes, I often wonder: Am I actually a “good” collaborator? And what makes for a good partnership?
Search online, and you’ll find hundreds of articles about the “6 ways to be a highly effective collaborator” and other clickbait-ish titles which suggest that achieving collaborative nirvana is only a few short steps away. They’ll provide advice like the need to be transparent, and to learn each others’ jargon, and a host of other memorable phrases. These are all really important skills, and should not be ignored (my characterization of “clickbait” applies only to the titles, and not to the content!). Here however, I ask whether there is anything particular that we should consider in bridging the gap between biologists and engineers.
Let me illustrate. Walking into our labs in the Wong building, you’re likely to either be impressed or flabbergasted by the chaos. On any day, you might find:
- Cell culture hoods and incubators outfitted with robotically-controlled pipettors, Arduino-controlled micropumps, and gas tank cylinders somehow hooked up directly to Petri dishes.
- Microscopes cobbled together from parts that make imaging trade-offs that no self-respecting biologist would ever accept; right next to the pieces for a custom-designed light-sheet microscope we’re in the process of building
- Laser cutters, 3D printers, ovens, craft cutters, soldering irons, hole punches, and a whole lot of DIY tools without which we couldn’t function. These tools are scattered around the automatic 3D-printed pipette tip-racking device that my students put together when Chris refused to buy pre-racked tips (CM: it builds character).
- Pipettes, microscope slides, glass coverslips and our trusty bottle of nail polish
- Bench space covered by an instant pot, homemade electrospinner, computer components, and what looks to be office binder clips and glass plates wired up to a heater cartridge and a homemade glass electrode, all mounted on an amazon-purchased weight balance.
This is the way that my lab functions – and there IS a method to this madness. But how does this fit with a biologist’s expectations of what a lab should be like? For me, this “vision” of the daily workings of a lab is quite reflective of the differences and similarities between us.
(Aside: at this point, I have to apologize and ask for forgiveness in advance for making generalizations. I’m certain that all these points are NOT true of everyone, and perhaps they only serve to highlight and display my own ignorance. I mean no disrespect to either field, and certainly not to any person or group – this is just a useful lens to start a discussion, and to give all my colleagues and students the opportunity to correct my over-generalizations. At best, I hope to annoy everyone equally).
Engineers are coached to build a new technique, analysis, or approach – that is how we have been rewarded ever since we were undergraduates. Building something that’s a slight improvement over what you can go and buy, or over what someone else has already done won’t get you a great paper / won’t get you a good grade / won’t earn you a nod from that professor you were hoping to postdoc with. For better or for worse, we’ve been coached into thinking that if the approach is not new, it is not worthwhile. This is clearly nonsense, but this is how we’ve been rewarded for years, and is what you have to do to progress in your career.
By contrast, biologists are coached and rewarded to focus on the new-ness of a question, and to use and understand gold standard techniques in the pursuit of that question. These techniques are tried and tested methodologies that will hopefully plug all the holes in a critique. We prize the information gained and the conclusions drawn from an experiment, but not necessarily the uniqueness of the instrument used to get at that information. The discussions that I appreciate most focus on “What does this really mean?”, “Can we interpret this data another way?” and those questions are so big and thought-provoking that it makes it difficult to have them while we’re also concerned about the core nature of the new method / instrument / protocol being used. This also means that we either consciously or unconsciously limit our questions to those that can be answered by the tools we have.
To further illustrate this differential approach to new-ness, both fields have SOPs – standard operating procedures, or protocols. In biology, the SOP might be for “How to perform an indirect immunostaining operation”. SOPs in biology labs serve the very important function of being able to answer a question. Learning how to ask that question, interpret the answer, and draw a conclusion is exceedingly difficult (and something I still have to work very hard at). Once we learn the SOP and get some practice, we can succeed at answering a question. It may not be the answer we’re looking for, or even the question we were expecting to answer, but it is AN answer. The questions biologists ask are so complicated, intertwined and connected, that having tools where there’s no history, confidence, or reliability is extremely challenging to square with the effort it takes to run that experiment. This is why these SOPs also have a lot of inertia: someone once put in a step for a really good reason, but no one understands or remembers why anymore – but we do them anyway, because it is just so important to get that assay to work so that we can find an answer.
In contrast, engineering SOPs describe “How to operate the 3D printer”. In my lab, that means that most SOPs are designed to build the next tool for which there is no SOP. Our protocols are used to build the first (or second, or third, or twenty-fifth) version of an instrument, that will allow us to do a new type of experiment. Because there is no history with the tool we’ve built, especially at the start of a project, the real capabilities, limitations, or best practices are unknown. We can take reasonably educated guesses, but it is a different experience being “confident” that the fundamental premise will work out without violating some basic limitation that we have not as yet thought of. Biologists experience this too of course (in spades!), but perhaps more at the level of a question and answer, than at the level of the experimental setup or conceptual approach.
In writing this, I realize that our issues and concerns are really the same: how do we be rigorous, yet creative scientists, able to tackle new problems in the domain we have chosen for ourselves? In my experience at least, our differences arise in where we need that new-ness to be so that we can find value in the work. And while appreciating and allowing for that can be the greatest challenge in working with each other, perhaps that is also the greatest reason to do so: when we come up with a new question that genuinely needs a new approach to solve, and the two line up perfectly with each other, that’s when we can make magic. This does not happen over a chance meeting: it takes time and effort to teach and learn from each other, empathy and understanding to take on each other’s priorities, and a firm enough belief in the potential of working together that allows us to survive the iterative process of coming up with that right new tool to match that right new question.
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