Work Effectively on Cross-Disciplinary Teams

The challenges inherent in much of emerging technology are far too great for an individual to encompass the requisite cross-domain knowledge. For this kind of work, then, the team becomes paramount. It is a multidisciplinary mix of scientists, engineers, and designers who are best positioned to understand and take advantage of these technologies. And, it is crucial that these creative disciplines evolve together. From such collaborations new roles will be created: perhaps we will soon see a great need for the synthetic biological systems engineer or the human-robot interaction designer. This cross-pollination of science, design, and engineering is already happening at organizations such as the Wyss Institute at Harvard, whose mission is to develop materials and devices inspired by nature and biology. Wyss structures itself around multidisciplinary teams. Forward-thinking design firms such as IDEO have also added synthetic biology to their established practices of industrial and digital design.

As an example of this cross-pollination, in a presentation, “Life is what you make it,” given at a Friday Evening Discourse at The Royal Institution of Great Britain in London, esteemed scientist and Imperial College professor Paul Freemont described how biological design could take its cues from computer software engineering, using an abstraction hierarchy for biological design.[] In the design of complex systems, an abstraction hierarchy makes it possible for engineers to focus on solving the problems at hand because they don’t necessarily need to understand the complexity of the lower levels of the hierarchy. In software development, for example, engineers can code in Java or C++ and not need to understand the machine-level code that ultimately executes the program. In the coming revolution in biological design, such an abstraction hierarchy will offer bioengineers the capability to operate similarly.

Although programming might be an apt analogy for that manipulation of nature, there are fundamental differences between the writing of computer code and genetic code. Even if we know the outcome of the genetic code we write, the environment into which it is released is far more complex than the controlled operating system of a computer or mobile device. There is so much unknown about biological systems that prototyping and testing will be critical steps for responsible innovation. Even though designers won’t necessarily need to become genetic engineers to contribute to the field of synthetic biology, they’ll need to understand the materials just as deeply.

At Boston University, the Cross-Disciplinary Integration of Design Automation Research (CIDAR) lab is creating bioCAD tools such as Clotho, an open source software framework for engineering synthetic biological systems. The larger goal for Clotho — named for the Greek goddess of Fate who was responsible for spinning the thread of human life — is to create standardized data, algorithms, and methodologies for synthetic biology. Other software tools such as Genome Compiler and Gene Designer aim to improve the process of genome creation from design to quality assurance to fabrication.

At the intersection of software design and genome design, these tools for automating aspects of the synth bio process are cross-disciplinary efforts.

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