Madeline Burke is a third-year postgraduate researcher in the department of Cellular and Molecular Medicine. Madeline did her undergraduate degree in Mechanical Engineering before switching disciplines when she started a PhD with the Bristol Centre for Functional Nanomaterials (BCFN). She is currently building a 3D bio-printer that can create human tissue by printing stem cells. Madeline’s research is interdisciplinary, using concepts from chemistry, cell biology and engineering, to design matrices for stem cells that not only support the cells, but cause them to grow into desired tissue such as cartilage. Most of her time is spent in the lab, designing new experiments and building her 3D printer.
What are the differences between sciences and engineering? Not an earth shattering, life changing question, I’ll admit, but one I have been pondering recently after my foray into nanoscience. Having previously defined myself as an engineer, a PhD in nanoscience has made me challenge my views and definition of science as a subject. Cheesy I know, but seriously, the differences between my engineering student university experience and that of my science graduate colleagues were astounding to me. So I decided to try and define these differences and where better to start answering my questions than the oracle of all things known (also known as Google or in this case my first hit, Wiki answers).
Wiki answers says “A scientist is a person who has scientific training or who works in the sciences. An engineer is someone who is trained as an engineer.” Somehow I don’t think it is that simple. As I’ve found out there is a huge amount of overlap between science and engineering, especially nanoscience. Let me explain – engineering is essentially applying scientific principles to real world problems, a product or solution is created and the problem is solved (or so engineers like to think). Science looks at the world around us and tries to find answers to its mysteries. The difference is not about the knowledge needed to study or practise these disciplines, but in the questions you ask.
In essence, a scientist looks at something and wants to understand “why?” Why is the sky blue? Why do things behave differently on the macro and micro scale? Why do stem cells proliferate and other cells do not? Essentially, it is about understanding and acquiring new knowledge. Engineering is more about “how?” As an engineer, I ask how I can make other cells differentiate. How can I sequence DNA cheaply and accurately? How can I make computers better, smaller and cheaper? Engineering is about invention and solving real-world problems rather than acquiring new knowledge.
This is where the hot new subject of nanoscience comes in, bridging the proverbial gap between science and engineering. Nanoscientists ask both types of questions: why do things behave differently at the nanoscale, and how can I apply this to a real world problem?
But I suppose the big question is who cares? Should there be a distinction between science and engineering? I highlight the well-known case of the chicken and the egg: in school, we were taught that science came first and engineering was the application of science, but now important advances in nanoscience are usually the result of a new tool becoming available. You could say that nanoscience is driven by engineering advances.
Nanoscience is starting to address the distinctions between engineering and science, and also within science itself. Coming from an engineering background the “why?” of science was a shock to me, but I’ve come to see it as an advantage. Engineering is often money and product focused, but without the why of science it wouldn’t exist. I still have the odd “how are you ever going to apply that to anything useful?” moment but in general nanoscience is perfect for me. I get the why and the how!