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Q&A with Associate Professor Ben Dhapiro

Ben ShapiroWhat impact could your work have on society or consumers?

We are creating novel devices for biology and medicine, for people who want to understand how cells behave, and for doctors who need to diagnose disease or deliver a drug to the right location, like a tumor. To do this, we're exploiting both micro- and nanotechnologies and advanced control design (which deals with how to put the right things at the right places). We believe the impact could be huge: from precisely directing chemotherapy to tumor locations, to manipulating single rare cells so biologists can understand the basis of disease, to enabling clinicians to isolate rare cells from a human blood sample in order to diagnose a disease.

Your background is in aerospace engineering. How did you become a bioengineer?

I would say that a scientist needs to learn whatever is necessary to properly do the things he or she is interested in doing. My original training was in fluid dynamics and in control theory. Even before I came to Maryland, in my last half year at Caltech, I became interested in miniaturized systems, microfluidics, MEMS, and all things small. That led to my having to learn new physics (microflows, surface tension, electromagnetism, even some chemistry), and these small devices are really suited for manipulating biological things, because they're the same size as cells and viruses.

I found research in medicine and biology to be fascinating. It is both diverse (I now get to work with people who do everything from autopsy studies to microfabrication) and important. Everyone gets sick at some stage, and to work on devices that may better diagnose or treat disease is exciting. I guess I drifted from what could be considered aerospace fields (fluids, and to a lesser degree control theory) into what now better fits inside of a bioengineering department, but I still view myself as simply doing whatever I think is cool and important.

Why should young engineers consider bioengineering for their field of study?

If it interests them, they should consider it. If it doesn't, they should consider something else that does. But there's a lot that is interesting in bioengineering, and we are only starting to understand how to think about engineering for real and pervasive medical problems. Students who want both the rigor of engineering and the complexity and 'messiness' of biology would fit in well in a bioengineering department, so long as they're OK with learning two fields and essentially doing twice the work!

What advice do you have for students, undergraduate or graduate?

I had a [personal] rule when I was an undergrad that I would never walk back into a class without understanding every single sentence that the professor had said in the previous one. That has served me well–it means my fundamentals are clear and crisp. Don't view each class as a survival test for the next 3 months. It's important to understand that you're being taught the basics for your career during you undergraduate years. It's so important.

What would students be surprised to learn about you?

I love to sketch and took drawing classes at Caltech. We had an exchange program where Ph.D. engineering students could take drawing or photography and the art students were allowed to take quantum physics–go figure. My feisty Italian instructor was very metaphysical, [always talking about] the negative and positive energy of drawings. He kept pointing out, daily, how art was not like engineering. One day I did a particularly good drawing. It was very three-dimensional and jumped off the page. The instructor said, "Ah, you are finally learning to use the positive energy." I replied, "Oh yes. I broke the model into segments and did a 3-D oblique engineering projection of each bit." He cracked up.

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