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Biotechnology (Cluster)

Technological advances, such as complete genome sequencing and high-throughput biochemical analysis of intracellular processes, have revolutionized biological research and are the foundation for innovation in clinical medicine and industry. However, utilizing these data to improve our understanding of the living world and to develop useful applications in biotechnology and medicine remain separate and challenging propositions. This cluster program will prepare the next generation of scientists and engineers to take on these challenges by drawing upon biotechnology, systems biology, and synthetic biology. Northwestern University has a strong history of interdisciplinary and interdepartmental research in the life sciences and engineering, from which these fields have emerged as powerful opportunities for students.

Biotechnology is a burgeoning area of research worldwide, both industrially and academically, that combines the expertise of multiple disciplines such as engineering, life sciences, and medicine. The emergence of new tools and ideas in biotechnology continues to accelerate, and this cluster program provides an interdisciplinary program with significant exposure to the concepts and experimental approaches in a variety of biotechnology-related research areas. Substantial technical and intellectual skills will be developed in areas such as stem cells, gene therapy, regenerative medicine, microbiology, molecular genetics, biochemical engineering, cell and tissue culture technologies, metabolic engineering, biomaterials, hybridoma technology, and separation technologies.

Systems Biology
With the advent of improved techniques for acquiring large-scale bioinformatic data, systems biology has emerged as a new scientific field dedicated to analyzing these large datasets to gain understanding. Given the special properties of biological systems, this field requires unique quantitative and analytical approaches. For example, biological systems are often characterized by complicated interactions between multiple components, such that the behavior of these complex systems is often not predictable based solely on an understanding of the components that compose the system - this is a property described as emergence. Because these properties are exhibited in many different forms across the biological spectrum, systems biology research stands at the fore of many fronts in biomedical science. Training in systems biology will develop the conceptual understanding, technical skills and tools, and scientific background required to address these challenges and capitalize upon this new realm of biological research.

Synthetic Biology
Synthetic biology seeks to develop the technologies and knowledge necessary to design and construct novel living systems. These efforts serve to both better our understanding of the natural living world and enable us to harness the immense repertoire of biology to meet pressing societal needs, including the sustainable production of biofuels and materials using microorganisms, using engineered cells as programmable therapeutics, and to facilitate environmental stewardship and conservation. Combining methods, principles, and knowledge from disciplines including biology, engineering, mathematics, and computational science, synthetic biology promises to transform both the life sciences and engineering.

Programs and Events

As part of this cluster, students will participate in activities including seminars and symposia, which provide valuable opportunities for interactions among participating students coming from different departments or programs and contribute to building and growing a community of researchers working on related challenges. Activities include:

Biotechnology Seminar Series - Research seminars on the various aspects of biotechnology is a key graduate training experience, especially in a field as interdisciplinary as biotechnology. A monthly seminar series is an opportunity for both trainees and faculty to learn about emerging opportunities within and outside of Northwestern.

Annual Biotechnology, Systems, and Synthetic Biology Poster Fair:  This event will be held in the Spring Quarter at a venue located at the Chicago campus, at which students and postdocs will have the opportunity to present posters and discuss their research with colleagues. The Fair will promote the formation of new connections among faculty and trainees of the Biotechnology, Systems and Synthetic Biology cluster, while providing an opportunity for informal interactions within this interdisciplinary group.

Who to Contact

Please contact the cluster director, listed below, with questions about this program.

Core Courses in Biotechnology, Systems and Synthetic Biology use quantitative analysis and engineering approaches to investigate and manipulate biological systems. To introduce students to the technical expertise and scientific background required to address important challenges in these fields, this cluster includes two required courses and recommends additional courses that can be taken to fulfill course requirements. Additionally, this cluster will include an ongoing series of short courses having the general aims of (a) enabling students from different scientific & technical backgrounds to learn and use a common scientific language, and (b) exposing students to emerging technologies and providing opportunities for training. This overall program will provide students with both opportunities for specialization and with the broader perspective required to tackle pressing and multidisciplinary scientific problems.

Basic recommended courses:

IBiS 410: Quantitative biology
ChBE 478: Advances in Biotechnology
CHEM_ENG 375: Biochemical Engineering
CHEM_ENG 376: Principles in Synthetic Biology
CHEM_ENG 379: Computational Biology: Principles and Applications
CHEM_ENG 373: Global Health and Biotechnology
IBiS 455: Current Topics in Synthetic Biology

Other recommended topics:

Elective courses will be announced and introduced over time, covering topics including computational biology, biochemical and metabolic engineering, and regenerative medicine.

Short Courses (provisional topics):

  • Introduction to molecular biology (theory and laboratory practice)
  • Technology-specific topics:
  • Imaging fundamentals
  • Characterization of materials
  • Mass spectrometry and proteomics