A New System at MIT

Innovative study programs address engineering technology and biology as systems.

The real world is messy and far more complicated than the neat, reductionist realm of scientists and engineers. Morning commutes snarl into traffic jams as hundreds of cars interact with roadways and one another. Factories designed for efficiency pollute the environment. Molecules and cells interact in perfect concert to help digest a meal or run a marathon-or run amok and form a tumor.

In the real world, disparate components interact in complex systems. Not only does each part of a machine combine with others to form a functioning whole, but there are also workers who must use those machines, and different machines that must work together. The entire structure influences and is influenced by external factors. At MIT, engineers and scientists are recognizing the necessity of viewing their subjects as systems rather than isolated mechanisms.

This attitude is yielding new programs that not only cross departmental boundaries but also integrate faculty from different schools into interdisciplinary-education programs and research efforts. For example, the Engineering Systems Division (ESD) was established in 1998 to create theory and practice about large-scale engineering projects, and efforts have been under way since the fall of 2001 to create the Computational and Systems Biology Initiative. Both programs grew out of professors’ grass-roots efforts to respond to the changing world and the evolving practice of engineering and biology.

Engineering Systems Division

Engineers cannot operate in isolation: they must deal with government regulators, economists, laborers, and managers; many of them have to deal with becoming managers themselves. Rarely do all those collaborators work together effortlessly. And on very large engineering projects, such as Boston’s Big Dig and the International Space Station, especially difficult problems are likely to arise. Engineers have come to realize that they require an understanding of large-scale systems both to help them anticipate potential engineering problems and to keep the projects running smoothly. “Technology is playing a more and more important role in society today,” says Daniel Roos ‘61, SM ‘63, PhD ‘66, associate dean for engineering systems. “Our products and our systems are getting both larger and more complex.We have to have a broader understanding than just the technology.”

Although the Institute had been developing such an understanding for some time, seven years ago a committee chaired by Tom Eagar ‘72, ScD ‘75, then head of materials science and engineering, found that to be positioned as a leading center of engineering for the 21st century, MIT’s School of Engineering would need to double the size of its faculty involved in integrative-engineering systems activities.

So Eagar’s committee recommended that the Institute create a division of engineering systems to coordinate and initiate such activities. Having a division, says Daniel Hastings SM ‘78, PhD ‘80, associate director and professor of aeronautics and astronautics, “is a way for MIT to plant a stake in the ground and say we’re going to be serious about creating a way of conceptualizing, planning, and constructing large-scale systems.”

To do this, the Engineering Systems Division incorporates faculty from the schools of engineering and the Sloan School of Management. Already, faculty have created several new courses in engineering systems. Members are working together to create master’s and doctoral programs focused on engineering systems and are exploring an undergraduate minor. “Our objective is to create a new field of study,” says Roos, explaining that they intend “to define engineering systems and to influence and change both engineering education and engineering practice.” The goal is not to replace the existing science-based practice of engineering, says Hastings, but to supplement it. “There’s a need for an expansion of the way engineers think and act and practice their art. There needs to be an emphasis in universities on this more holistic approach to engineering,” he says. A small number of students started a pilot version of the doctoral program in September.

The division hosts several preexisting interdisciplinary master’s and doctoral programs that were designed to help engineers understand management issues, as well as the social, economic, and environmental impact of their projects. The programs include Leaders for Manufacturing; System Design and Management; Technology and Policy; Transportation; Logistics; and Technology, Management, and Policy. Four cross-departmental research centers have also found homes within the division: the Center for Technology, Policy, and Industrial Development; the Industrial Performance Center; the Center for Transportation Studies and Logistics; and the Center for Innovation in Product Development. Each of these centers links partners from academia, industry, and government in efforts that aim to create sustainable global development: that is, economic growth that will consume no more natural resources than the earth can supply indefinitely.

Several research projects have also been launched under the aegis of the division. The Lean Aerospace Initiative is an effort to examine significant changes in the aerospace industry, and a program on sustainable mobility aims to ensure our ability to move around the globe without injuring the environment. This fall the division launched a major program that examines homeland security, assembling faculty from the aeronautics and astronautics, nuclear engineering, civil engineering, political science, and mechanical engineering departments, as well as the Sloan School, and the Program in Science, Technology, and Society. For example, one project undertaken in cooperation with Sandia National Laboratories aims to develop ways to protect or rapidly restore systems of the nation’s infrastructure, such as water and electrical systems, in the face of an attack.

Establishing an educational unit that crosses MIT’s departmental lines and school boundaries has proved complicated at times, Roos says. “It took a long time to get ESD approved because it is unconventional,” he says. The key to its success in creating new research and educational programs, he adds, has been the people involved. “There’s a common vision and common understanding of what we’re trying to accomplish.”

Computational and Systems Biology Initiative

Similar vision and understanding have led to a cross-school program that takes a systems view of another field known for its reductionist approach: biology. Faculty from the Departments of Biology and Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and the Biological Engineering Division joined forces in a grass-roots effort to create the Computational and Systems Biology Initiative. Last spring, faculty taught the program’s first new graduate course, and a second will be added this spring. Interdisciplinary research efforts are already under way. The goal is to make MIT a leader in “the third real revolution in modern biology,” says biologist Peter Sorger, a member of the initiative’s executive committee. “For the first time, you have the introduction of mathematical methods to understand biology as an integrated system,” he says. “As a biologist, when you come into this, you recognize that this is going to be the future.”

In many respects, modern biology is molecular biology. Molecular biologists view biological systems from the perspective of a single molecule or, perhaps, two or three molecules that interact. “The new view is that a lot of biology can be understood only as a system,” adds Bruce Tidor, a computational biologist in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and the Biological Engineering Division. “To figure out how biological systems really work is going to take a combination of computation, engineering, biology, and science. It is going to require investigators from these different fields working together and students who can cross boundaries more easily. MIT is ideally suited to do this.”

The reason? MIT’s strength in engineering. “Engineering is essential,” says Sorger. While other institutions have programs in computational or systems biology, says Tidor, “what’s going to make MIT unique is the very strong engineering component. Engineers are great at understanding systems.” The initiative has already drawn faculty from the chemistry, physics, mathematics, brain and cognitive sciences, chemical engineering, and mechanical engineering departments. The Sloan School and the MIT Media Lab are also involved. Unlike similar efforts at other institutions, this program will not remove faculty from their home departments; instead it seeks to build ties across them.

Three components make up the initiative’s efforts to integrate researchers throughout the Institute: interdisciplinary projects, many of which are already under way; core research facilities that will give faculty throughout MIT access to cutting edge technologies in computation and the study of biological molecules and processes; and a new educational program that ultimately will include a doctorate in systems biology. To fund this massive effort, the initiative’s executive committee is seeking money from private foundations and government agencies such as the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. In addition, the initiative is working with MIT’s Industrial Liaison Program to investigate the possibility of industrial support.

Both the Computational and Systems Biology Initiative and the Engineering Systems Division capitalize on MIT’s strengths to keep the Institute’s leadership position in education and research. As the world beyond the university becomes increasingly complex and messy, faculty are learning to cross boundaries to keep pace with the evolution of technology, science, and society.

Tech Obsessive?
Become an Insider to get the story behind the story — and before anyone else.
Subscribe today

Uh oh–you've read all five of your free articles for this month.

Insider Premium

$179.95/yr US PRICE

Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe to Insider Plus.

  • Insider Plus {! insider.prices.plus !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Everything included in Insider Basic, plus ad-free web experience, select discounts to partner offerings and MIT Technology Review events

    See details+

    What's Included

    Bimonthly home delivery and unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website.

    The Download. Our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation.

    Access to the Magazine archive. Over 24,000 articles going back to 1899 at your fingertips.

    Special Discounts to select partner offerings

    Discount to MIT Technology Review events

    Ad-free web experience

You've read of free articles this month.