Biomechanics at Harvard University

An NSF IGERT interdisciplinary Ph.D. program


 

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The Biomechanics IGERT Program

 

Introduction

Welcome to the Harvard University Biomechanics Website. Through a partnership with the National Science Foundation, Harvard offers an Interdisciplinary Graduate Education and Research Training (IGERT) Ph.D. program in biomechanics. The main objective of this program is to provide a new type of educational environment which results in students who are simultaneously engineers, physical scientists, and biologists in their way of thinking.

The physical and biological sciences are historically separated by choice of what to study, lack of a common language, and style of research. Our goal is to use active collaboration across disciplines to create an educational environment in which students can work comfortably in all three fields (biology, physical science, and engineering) as well as gracefully span the interfaces between them.

Our training program is distinguished from other bioengineering programs by its emphasis on comparative and evolutionary perspectives to the biomechanical study of both plants and animals. The challenge, and thus the opportunity, is to go far beyond simply adding the skills and approaches of engineering to the study of biology, or to widening the purview of the physical scientist to include biological systems as suitable topics for study. Our goal is a deliberate approach to the fundamental issue of training students whose scientific instincts and intellectual foundation transcend phiolsophically distinct fields.

The faculty participants include expertise across a diversity of organisms (prokaryotes, plants, and vertebrates), at a number of levels of organization (subcellular to whole organism), and in a range of sub-disciplines (fluid mechanics to microrheology). These differences, notwithstanding, we are united in believing that physical forces are important in constraining the structure and design of biological systems. Thus, our program requires at every step that the faculty and student participants function as a collaborative cohort whose collective goal is the development of new ways of knowing.

Vision, Goals, and Thematic Basis

The objective of this program is to bridge the physical and biological sciences by focusing on teaching and research in an area that requires the active participation of both, and which gives students the opportunity to learn the styles of each area and to take advantage of the opportunities that each offers.

The program rests on five tenets:

Biology needs tools and concepts from the physical sciences. There is an enormous and unexploited opportunity for the biological sciences to use tools, analytical methods, and concepts taken from the physical sciences. This need is particulary acute in areas that involve high-level phenotypic behavior of organisms: movement, movement of mass, and the generation and storage of energy and its conversion to work.

Biology offers many interesting phenomena to the physical sciences for study and for exploitation and adaptation. There is an equally attractive opportunity for the physical sciences to use an understanding of biological phenomena as the basis for the study of physical phenomena in new circumstances, and for the invention of new systems that mimic important aspects of these phenomena and embed these biomimetic phenomena in nonliving systems.

Biomechanics is a theme that bridges biological and physical sciences. Biomechanics is a theme that provides a balance between physical and biological sciences, and that requires creative contribution from each. We define biomechanics very broadly to mean the mechanical characteristics of biological systems (for example, the force generated by biological motors, the strength of biological structures, the permeability of biological membranes) and also the molecular phenomena that underlie these characteristics (bioenergetics, molecular motors, fluid movement in biological systems).

This area involves the study of the phenotypic characteristics of organisms; it is situated at a higher level of biological organization than the genome that has been so extensively studied in the last 40 years. It studies physical phenomena (capillarity, the properties of ionic solutions and of ionic gradients, molecular motors, membranes, and mechanical work) that fall among some of the areas of soft physics and chemistry, and of biophysics/chemistry, that are most interesting intellectually, and most interesting to students.

Students concerned with biomechanics must take a systems view of biology: that is, they must think of biological systems not in terms of isolated, disaggregated genes and proteins, but in terms of the ensemble behaviors of their molecular components, of their meso/macroscopic biological characteristics and functions, and of the forces, materials, and fluxes that give them their dynamic properties. Biology can offer limitless interesting behaviors in this area; the physical sciences have a sophisticated understanding of many of the most important underlying phenomena.

Students are the best teachers of students. The best teachers of students, especially in an area that spans multiple disciplines, are other students. Programs designed to train students who truly understand both physical and biological sciences must ensure that the students have the experience of living in both kinds of research groups, and of working in collaborative research programs with other students who understand the principles of each. The educational program should, therefore, emphasize structures, thesis programs that are jointly supervised by biological and physical scientists, rotations through both biological and physical laboratories, and extensive collaboration that maximizes student-to-student and group-to-group interactions. In genuinely new areas, the faculty can point the direction, but the students will lead.

A successful program should have four outputs: students, faculty, knowledge, and technology. The first, and most important, output of the proposed program will be graduate students who are prepared to carry out creative work in the new area between biology and physical science. The second will be the results of research in this area; that is, fundamental understanding. The third will be a faculty that is increasingly sophisticated in the problems and opportunities of the area, and increasingly sophisticated in their guidance of subsequent generations of students. A fourth will be technology, or science ready to be converted into technology.

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Last updated November 30, 2004. Please contact the webmaster for any website-related issues. Thank you for visiting!