Recently, we interviewed Georges Belfort, Ph.D., who is an Institute Professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Board Chair of the Society for Biological Engineering (SBE). In the interview, Dr. Belfort explained the main fields within engineering and how biochemical engineers are unique.
Can you tell us a little bit about your background before entering the biochemical engineering field? How did you become a biochemical engineer?
I got a degree in chemical engineering from the University of Cape Town in South Africa. I came to California and got a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in engineering. It’s sort of an undefined area, but generally it gives you a good basis. There are four general areas that comprise chemical engineering. You also do applied mathematics and thermodynamics.
So how did I get into this? Actually it was serendipity. I got my first job at McDonald Douglas Aircraft Company in California, working on fuel cells. And I published my first papers on fuel cells as an undergraduate research person.
Then, they opened a new campus across the road from where I worked in Newport Beach, California. It was called the University of California’s new campus, Irvine. I became quite interested in fuel cells and desalination, how to desalinate ocean water.
At that time and still today, this is 45 to 50 years later, California is still looking for new ways to get more drinking water. I was interested in these two topics, and I actually designed a water recycling system for the first aerospace run, which was tested at UCLA.
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And it actually worked, to my total amazement. I devised and developed the wick evaporator, so that you could reuse the water in a space capsule. Eventually, I changed my focus from water to biotech, and I have not looked back since. So, I’ve been working in this field for some 30, nearly 40 years.
What is a biochemical engineer?
There are four main engineering fields: chemical, mechanical, electrical and civil. All other engineering fields are derivatives of applications or other areas. Electrical engineering has subsets like biomedical, and so do mechanical engineering and chemical engineering, so biomedical sort of crosses all of these four areas.
And then there is a difference between biomedical engineering and biochemical engineering. Biomedical engineering focuses mainly on health directives and health-related projects. Biochemical engineering does not deal directly with the human body, but may involve other areas that are related to the human body.
As I look at it, biochemical engineers are people who design plants for production of drugs, pharmaceuticals and biotechnology products. So it’s a wide field. Let me give you some examples of some fields that biochemical engineers work on. There are areas that are inside cells. We can use cells whether they are bacteria, fungi, live mammalian cells, or Chinese hamster ovary cells.
These cells are production lines. They make products for you, very valuable products like antibodies and growth hormones for example. The problem is, sometimes they’re not so efficient. The inside metabolic processes of how they work, is a topic heavily evolved by chemical engineers. For example, there’s a whole subfield called metabolic engineering.
That’s part of biology and biochemical engineering. The other area is how to build a plan to make these materials. That is called biochemical engineering processing.
What are some of the top benefits of being a biochemical engineer?
It’s so variable and personal. This field is highly valued. For example, you get high pay if you join one of these biotech companies. It’s much higher than if you were a chemist or a biologist. I think the other benefits are that you can basically deal with healthcare.
You can try to help patients diminish their diseases. It’s a major psychological advantage to do that. You can work and help people. I myself am mostly interested in the fundamental aspects of how things work. I want to know how Alzheimer’s works. In fact, we don’t know at all.
We have no treatments. We have a terrible disease where 500,000 people are dying every year and we don’t have a clue. That’s an area one could work on, and I actually do, to see if we can try to understand the fundamental aspects to it.
If you don’t know fundamentals, you can’t treat somebody. I think it’s a satisfying area. I’ll tell you what else I like about it. It combines biology, chemistry, and mathematics all together into one field. And you need to pull from each to solve problems. It’s not a singular area. It’s quite multidisciplinary and multi-topic.
Have you noticed any new trends related to the biochemical engineering profession?
Now, there is a new way of treating cancer. Cancer immunotherapy is a very helpful way of treating cancer of the blood. Biochemical engineers are needed, and what they do is take someone’s white blood cells out of the body, and send it to a company like Celgene.
They take the cells and add to its genetic code a gene to synthesize a molecule (on the cell surface) that specifically recognizes cancer cells. And then you take those cells and place them back in the person’s body and it kills the cancer cells. So the engineers are needed to separate and purify these cells.
The second area is gene therapy. One can conceivably take a segment of a DNA sequence (let’s call them “letters of a sequence) and add it into the cell nucleus, or possibly replace a mutation that’s causing a disease. There’s a new technique that should win the Nobel Prize, it’s one of the most important discoveries, called CRISPR-Cas 9. This method is used to edit genes inside a cell.
So one can remove some “letters” of the genetic alphabet. And then one could replace the missing “letters” with desirable “letters.” This has never been possible before. So for gene therapy to succeed, one has to deliver these new “letters” (i.e. genetic code) with the Cas 9 protein through the cell envelope and to the cell nucleus. Biochemical engineers are working on this challenge.
The third area is called convergence. Combine medical scientists and physicians, fundamental scientists, and engineers together to solve problems. The idea is that you must pull these multi-disciplinary people together. You can’t solve these complicated problems alone.
How competitive is it to become a biochemical engineer?
There’s a lot of steps. It’s quite competitive to get into good universities. There are a lot of students who’d like to get into this field. It’s a very productive and progressive field that’s going very well.
The biotech companies don’t have enough biochemical engineers. In fact, my own son has a Ph.D. in neurochemistry and an M.D. degree.
He worked for a start-up company in Cambridge, MA. He told me that there is tremendous action going on there. I think the biotechnology field is flying.
What advice would you give to aspiring biochemical engineers?
Everybody has a different interest. First, I’d advise the student to read the literature and follow the breakthroughs. I’d advise every student that’s trying to get into biochemical engineering to read, because (they) tell you what are the hottest fields.
[Reading scientific literature] tells you where the new companies are. In 2018 in the biotech field, $24B was funded in private biotech across the globe. Article(s) review the companies, but what’s more important is that (they) tell you the new areas. You can see exactly what the hot fields are and where to focus.
Porschia Parker is a Certified Coach, Professional Resume Writer, and Founder of Fly High Coaching. (https://www.fly-highcoaching.com) She empowers ambitious professionals and motivated executives to add $10K on average to their salaries.
Dr. Georges Belfort is an Institute Professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in the School of Engineering, specializing in chemical and biological engineering. He is also the current Board Chair of the Society for Biological Engineering (SBE).
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