Letter from the Associate Dean

The Impressive Spread of Life Sciences at MIT

The field of “Molecular Biology” explains how genes work and has led to the development of powerful tools that can manipulate genes. These concepts and tools are so useful that they have been embraced by a wide span of science and engineering fields, creating new interfaces with biology that are together termed “Life Sciences.” This broad relevance is why biology became a General Institute Requirement at MIT around two decades ago. The conclusion that biology should be given equivalent weight with venerable subjects, such as single variable calculus or classical mechanics, was thoughtful and predictive. At the time, it was clear that molecular biology could explain genetics at a mechanistic level, and had the potential to influence many research areas. Decades on, it is clear how profound that influence has been at MIT. For ten years, I have co-taught one of the Introductory Biology subjects, 7.013. It is a wonderful challenge to communicate the fascinating workings of life, to discuss crucial unanswered fundamental and health-related questions, and to explore what can be done with the molecular biology toolkit. Students come to understand that because the toolkit is so widely used, it is likely to impact their education. For example, about 40% of all research at MIT is Life Sciences based, and so a significant percentage of students will work in a Life Sciences-based UROP. A couple of hundred subjects taught address the Life Sciences, most in the School of Science, but spanning all schools. Consistent with that large set of subject offerings, we recently collated an astonishing thirteen undergraduate majors that can be Life Sciences based, including chemistry, EAPS, math, and physics and many majors in the School of Engineering (http://science.mit.edu/academicprograms/undergraduate/life-sciences). One is the popular new 6-7 major, Computer Science and Molecular Biology, which is offered jointly between EECS and the Biology Department and encompasses a substantive curriculum across the two departments. At the graduate level, no fewer than nineteen separate programs can be Life Sciences based, including four interdisciplinary programs – in microbiology, biophysics, computational and systems biology, and molecular neuroscience. These educational offerings are groundbreaking and prepare our students for important careers at the interface of biology, other sciences, and engineering.

"It is a wonderful challenge to communicate the fascinating workings of life, to discuss crucial unanswered fundamental and health-related questions, and to explore what can be done with the molecular biology toolkit."