Robert Nicol, SM '01

Manufacturing expertise speeds up DNA advances

Jan 8, 2007

Biologists aren’t the only ones working on the human genome these days. Engineer Robert Nicol, SM ‘01, is bringing industrial techniques, engineering, and business management to the Broad Institute’s efforts to read and catalogue the data contained in DNA. This knowledge will help researchers decipher the fundamental processes of life and develop medicines to combat cancer and other diseases.

Robert Nicol, SM ‘01

Determining the DNA sequence of a large genome–like that of humans–requires an industrial-scale process because of the millions of reactions that must be performed. Nicol and his Broad colleagues isolate the DNA from the organism to be sequenced, break it into fragments, amplify the fragments, attach fluorescent labels, and then read the labeled fragments using laser-based detectors. Specialized computer programs then assemble the fragments into a usable genome sequence. Nicol and his team of 120 people have cut the cost of sequencing in half every two years.

Nicol worked in petrochemicals for Fluor Daniel after he got his SB in mechanical engineering from the University of Houston in 1992. By 1999, he was ready for a change. “I wanted a switch to something that makes the world a better place,” he says. “I wanted to be on the cutting edge.” He came to MIT to earn a dual master’s degree in chemical engineering and management through the Leaders for Manufacturing Program.

When he graduated, the Whitehead/MIT Center for Genome Research, now part of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, hired him to incorporate industrial techniques into genome research. “I brought expertise in process engineering and management to a field where it had not been applied, but most importantly, I was willing to learn the biology,” he says. “Because genomic science and technology is changing so much, the job and the qualifications are evolving simultaneously; you have to keep learning.” Nicol is now pursuing a PhD part time in MIT’s Engineering Systems Division.

Nicol was born in Guatemala and came to the United States as a teenager. He speaks four languages and goes sailing whenever he has free time. He jokes that the MIT boathouse is “one of the main reasons I work here.”