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BE Avoids Lottery As Fewer Apply, More Spaces Added

By Kirtana Raja

CORRECTION TO THIS ARTICLE: A Feb. 17 article about enrollment in the new biological engineering major incorrectly gave the number of students who took the subject BE.110 (Thermodynamics of Biomolecular Systems), which is required to apply for the BE major. About 100 students took the class, of whom 75 were sophomores, and 40–45 of those expressed interest in the major at the start of the term. There were not 75 students in the class as reported in the article. The same article also incompletely described MIT’s BE curriculum. While MIT’s faculty did look at the undergraduate curricula offered by other schools, the Institute’s curriculum was created from scratch and differs significantly from programs offered at other universities. After its first departmental lottery ever, biological engineering enrolled all the students who applied for membership to its first undergraduate class. Only 33 out of the 75 students who took the required introductory BE focused class applied to the major, eliminating the need for a lottery.

BE Professor Linda G. Griffith, who is in charge of the curriculum, said some of the 75 possible candidates did not apply because their expectations for the BE major were different from the actual curriculum and purpose, and they found that another major fit them better.

Originally, laboratory space limitations were expected to constrain the class size to 20, but through efforts by the MIT administration and the BE department, additional space was found to accommodate all 33 students.

“Our target number for the first class was 20, based primarily on the laboratory space available for BE.109 (Laboratory Fundamentals of Biological Engineering) and the subsequent laboratory course BE.309 (Biological Engineering II: Instrumentation and Measurement), but also on the availability of faculty advisors,” she said.

The department was able to increase the lab space for the introductory BE.109 laboratory class because they were given additional space in Building 16 and were also given permission to hire additional teachers as needed, Griffith said.

BE major Danielle E. Carpenter ’07 said that while she knew a lottery was possible, she “was not particularly worried about not getting into the major, because her UROP professor said it would probably not be a problem.

Griffith said that the department is working with MIT administration to provide more laboratory space to hold larger classes, a development that will affect this year’s freshman class, whose members have shown significant interest in the BE major. “I hope we will be able to accommodate at least 40 people, perhaps more,” Griffith said.

While the department does hope to grow and build their student base, Griffith said that they want to attract students who are truly interested in the MIT BE program, which is focused on the modern molecular life sciences.

“Some students when they come to MIT have misconceptions about what exactly our BE program is about, because they think we have included a lot of medicine-related topics in our classes, while we are actually focused on the molecular life sciences,” Griffith said.

“These misconceptions arise naturally because most other schools with bioengineering programs focus on human physiology,” while MIT’s program “seeks to educate students in applying engineering principles to biology,” she said. “Our job is to make sure that they have a clear picture [of our BE program] so that if students truly are interested in majoring in BE they can.”

Carpenter provided another explanation for the number of applicants, saying that some of the 75 students in BE.110 (Thermodynamics of Biomolecular Systems) may not have chosen to pursue the BE major because they could always take most of the BE classes, except for the laboratory class BE.109, without being a BE major. Students could also pursue a BE research project even while pursuing another major, she said.

Carpenter, however, said that she has always wanted to be a BE major since her junior year of high school and is extremely excited about the major. “It’s really exciting to be pioneering and studying a new field as well as getting to have a big say in the course curriculum of such a new major,” Carpenter said.

To decide the most fair and efficient way to conduct the lottery, Griffith asked for help from MIT undergraduate students, such as the members of Committee for Undergraduate Programs and those involved in the Biomedical Engineering Society (BMES).

Griffith said that the BMES students were crucial in obtaining feedback about the lottery and other aspects of the new undergraduate major. One of the key suggestions made by BMES members was to hold off on the BE major selection process until the end of fall term of sophomore year, when most students would have taken the required core classes, including 7.01x (Introductory Biology), 18.03 (Differential Equations), and BE.110, necessary to apply for admission into the BE program. These requirements ensure that students have time to understand the intellectual goals of BE before applying, Griffith said.

BE.109, taken after students are admitted to the BE major, is an introductory laboratory course that exposes students to some basic biochemical and molecular laboratory techniques in the areas of protein engineering, protein chemistry, genetic engineering and phenotypic engineering.

The Biological Engineering department was introduced in 1998 as a PhD program. In 2002, a visiting committee comprised of scientists from bioengineering companies outside academia and MIT alums recommended that MIT create a BE program for their undergraduates after noting the success of the PhD program.

According to Griffith, the faculty’s first mission in establishing this new major was to decide what topics should be covered in the classes and create new classes appropriate for the major. BE now has a total of nine new core courses that were specially developed for it. By looking at the programs built at other colleges, Griffith and the other faculty were able to create a program that allowed students to utilize the engineering approaches to analyze design and synthesis components related to the molecular life sciences, instead of the usual focus on medicine and human psychology. “MIT is really very unique because we are the first university to have a biological engineering program that focuses entirely on engineering and the molecular life sciences instead of the widely-available engineering and medicine combination,” Griffith said.