Engineering and Physical Biology (EPB) Track

EPB (Engineering and Physical Biology) is the newest addition to the MCO graduate track.  EPB began in 2006 as an interdepartmental Ph.D. track, with students entering from the Departments of Molecular & Cellular Biology and of Physics and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.  EPB still serves this broad community but has recently been incorporated administratively into the MCO training program.  Students officially enrolled in the EPB program will now enter through MCO.

Track Leaders: Nancy Kleckner and Mara Prentiss

Background

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EPB emerged through the efforts of a particular, self-assembled group of faculty who share a particular vision of the future of scientific progress at the interface between biology and the physical sciences. For the past 50-100 years, biology at the molecular and cellular levels has been viewed primarily as the aggregate sum of a large number of individual events and the interactions amongst them. We envision that the next round of fundamental advances in the life sciences will emerge by viewing biological processes in a very different way: as manifestations of the fundamental principles that apply to all types of systems non-biological and biological. By this view, life can be described not in terms of collections of diverse specific molecular and cellular details but in a more unifying and fundamental way as the manifestation and implementation of basic physical laws and universal principles of engineering and physics. This new approach can be described as "viewing living systems through the lens of physics and engineering".

Intellectual Goal

The goal of EPB is to create a new generation of young scientists who will probe biological processes through this new lens. It is widely understood that many important future advances in science will arise at the interfaces among different fields and, in particular, at the interface between the physical and life sciences. At present, most scientists work in only one of these two areas and rely upon collaborations with colleagues in the other area to complement their own expertise. EPB seeks to train young scientists who work comfortably, and simultaneously, in both areas.

From an engineering/physics perspective, a particular phenomenon may reflect the operation of chemical, electrical and/or mechanical processes. EPB will develop young scientists who can investigate how these basic physical effects have been brought together in living systems, with primary emphasis on events at smaller scales, micron-level and below, and including cellular, sub-cellular, macromolecular and single molecule processes. Questions of interest fall into three general categories.

  1. Mechanics and Dynamics. How do the mechanical properties of biological macromolecules, macromolecular complexes and ensembles (chromosomes, membranes and structures) and cellular surfaces influence their function? What are the mechanical forces that underlie the motion of macromolecules and their complexes and ensembles within cells? What promotes motion of individual cells? How are such forces generated and how are they appropriately directed?
  2. Patterns and Collective Phenomena. How are spatial and temporal patterns determined within cells and among cells in a group? What are the bases for numerical specification in biological systems? How does collective behavior arise in aggregates? What is an effective /efficient way of describing and regulating such behaviors? What are the roles of thermal and athermal sources of fluctuations in these situations?
  3. Transport, Signaling and Communication. How does information flow within cellular compartments, between compartments, within and among macromolecules and their ensembles and structures, and among cells? What are the relative roles of diffusion vs. active transport and of chemical signaling vs. mechanical linkage? What are the roles of mechanochemical signaling networks in motility, patterning and behavior? How is robustness built into the design of such networks?

Guiding Principles

The EPB Program is small and highly selective with only a few students admitted each year. Students may enter from an undergraduate background in either the biological sciences or the physical sciences. An effort will be made to include students from different scientific backgrounds.

EPB is designed to be a small, intensive program that features and fosters extensive interactions among students and faculty. Core training components will be rigorous, but will be combined with the programmatic flexibility as needed to accommodate the needs of students with diverse backgrounds. Every aspect of the program will encourage innovative, imaginative and unconventional approaches to physical biology.

Program and Events

EPB sponsors a Fall Research Meeting at which faculty working at the biology/physical sciences interface introduce their work.

EPB also sponsors an annual Spring Symposium.  This all-day event features a morning session with talks by four invited outside speakers, open to the public, followed by an in-house afternoon session in which EPB graduate student present their work and interact with invited speakers and EPB-associated faculty.  A dinner follows that evening.

EPB students can organize additional events during the year, e.g. regular chalk talks for interested graduate students and post-doctoral fellows and, in years, a lunchtime seminar series.

Specific Requirements of the EPB Program

Each student will develop his or her own course program in consultation with the EPB Mentoring Committee and appropriate representative(s) of their home department in accordance with MCO guidelines.

Please see the Coursework page for specific EPB requirements during the first year.

EPB Contacts

For further information on the EPB Track, please contact either: