Grant to Pratt to Support New Approach to Understanding Biology Through Engineering

DURHAM, N.C. -- A center at Duke's Pratt School of Engineering has received a $2.9 million National Science Foundation grant to start a two-year graduate research education curriculum that will teach students how to use engineering principles to explore natural materials and processes.

Such research could lead to biologically-based products of societal benefit or to basic laboratory discoveries about living structures and systems.

The interdisciplinary Center for Biologically Inspired Materials and Material Systems (CBIMMS) will develop the Graduate Training in Biologically Inspired Materials program. The award was announced by the federal agency Jan. 16.

"This curriculum is unique to Duke, and unique nationally," said CBIMMS director Robert Clark, who is also a Pratt School professor of mechanical engineering and materials science as well as senior associate dean.

Clark said the instructional method will also be "unique internationally" in that it will address various scales of biological materials, from the size of individual molecules upward to complete organisms, not just for medical applications but also for a broader range of technological and societal needs. And while the training will take an engineering perspective, it will not necessarily turn out graduate engineers, he added.

The curriculum, a blend of classroom and laboratory experiences as well as summer industrial internships, will instead be open to students who ultimately get their doctorates in disciplines such as chemistry, physics or cell biology, as well as biomedical engineering or mechanical engineering and materials science.

"The critical issue is whether we can educate students who will take some engineering tools into a program like cell biology," Clark said. "And, vice versa, can we have students who have been trained in the biological sciences bring that information into engineering?

"This era has been labeled the Century for Biology, and I think this program is a way to bring engineering, especially the material sciences area, into these discoveries."

David Needham, another Duke professor of mechanical engineering and materials science who will serve as the program's director of graduate studies, predicted the program will "revolutionize the way we engineer in the life sciences at the graduate student level. It will use nature as an example for engineering, while at the same time explaining nature by using engineering principles and rigor."

Needham contrasted this future with the way traditional engineers now use various tools to test properties of the "hard and dry" materials that go into today's products. The Duke program, he said, will instead prepare students to develop the tools and techniques to understand, and perhaps engineer, the "soft and wet" materials of nature, which function at scales as small as a billionth of a meter.

Needham, who is the CBIMMS co-director, already works with graduate students in a research program in biologically based materials, such as microscopic capsules called liposomes that carry chemotherapeutic agents through the bloodstream to destroy tumors.

Besides supporting a new training curriculum, he said the National Science Foundation funding will also provide students with badly needed support during the initial two classroom years of graduate school, before they traditionally enter the laboratory full-time and begin being supported by research grants.

Clark noted the new graduate curriculum will also fund undergraduate students, especially women and under-represented minorities, who wish to enter this emerging new field.

"We will have a number of opportunities to work within the program at the undergraduate level," Clark said. "One of the distinguishing features of Duke University is the active involvement that undergraduates have in research activities."