Mary Lidstrom may be a biologist by training, but she is a systems engineer by inclination.
It was a lesson she learned about herself more than 20 years ago while trying to bring a more quantitative approach to her science. She started working with engineers and discovered she really enjoyed an engineering approach to understanding complex biological systems.
"It became clear to me that I needed to move into an engineering program and have engineering students," she says. "So I teach microbiology to engineers. They want to learn biology so they can work at this biology/engineering interface."
As an HHMI Professor, her goal is to further integrate life sciences into the engineering program, to teach design and function as it relates to biology, expanding on an existing program in the school.
"We actually teach biology to engineers differently than it is taught to biologists," says Lidstrom, a professor of chemical engineering and microbiology, and associate dean for new initiatives in engineering at the University of Washington. "It's a function-based approach with the idea of nature as the designer, and evolution as the design tool. That's real engineering. And that's the way we feel biology should be taughtstart with how it works, then talk about the parts."
The practical application includes metabolic engineering, "to take bacteria, for example, and use them as factories to make products," or creating so-called "smart materials" that are biologically based and take their cue from nature. If scientists can understand how nature does it, they may be able to figure out how to do it on their own.
Examples include human skin, which has a remarkable ability to repair itself, and the shell of the abalone, "which is made up of minerals and proteins, and is several times stronger than it should be, based on its components," she says.
Lidstrom, who serves on the editorial board of the Journal of Bacteriology, focuses her own research on molecular and metabolic manipulations of methylotrophic bacteria, which are capable of growth on methane, methanol, and methylated amines.
The long-term goal of her research is to develop environmentally sound and economically viable alternatives to current chemical production and cleanup strategies.