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Bio-Engineering a Better World

March 29, 2019

Believe it or not, abalone sea snails play a major role in manufacturing better batteries and electronics, protecting people and the environment from waste and poison gases, and potentially improving early cancer diagnostics.

Dr. Angela Belcher, a biological engineer and materials scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), addressed the many ways her study of how abalone snails construct their shells has led to those major scientific breakthroughs for this year’s WTMA Distinguished Lectureship in Science Honoring Dr. Roy E. Moon.

“Through millions of year of evolution, organisms in the oceans learned how to build exquisite materials,” Belcher said. “They have also learned how to do it in a way that is compatible with their environment. To me, that is an amazing and admirable design principle. But the ways many of our electronics and textiles are made today are not compatible with the environment.”

“I’ve spent my career thinking about how nature evolved to make materials,” she added, “and trying to apply those principles to non-natural biological materials so that we can have an effect on how things like batteries, solar cells and electronics are made. It’s about harnessing and capturing the beauty and potential of biology and its mechanisms for technological advances.”

Dr. Angela Belcher in her lab at MIT Dr. Angela Belcher in her lab at MIT Through a series of presentations that included two public lectures, Belcher described her research procedures and the paths that she, her research assistants and her students have taken to genetically engineer non-organic materials to improve energy storage, health care and the environment.

“I thought it was important to show the nuts and bolts of the process,” Belcher said. “I wanted them to see the real road map – and how to think through it and be open minded, because even if you fail, it could end up being your biggest discovery.”

“Ultimately, I’m an engineer,” she added, “and as an engineer, I want to solve problems. I try to solve problems that have an impact on society. So the kinds of problems I work on deal with energy storage, environmental mediation, and cancer diagnostics and imaging.”

During her time on campus, Belcher also met informally with several student groups and passed on her best advice.

“Find something you’re really excited about and love to do,” Belcher said. “Your next step, whether it’s a job or graduate school, is going to have a lot of ups and downs. The key is to have more ups than downs. The key to that is to love what you do.”

“You also need to be open minded, and it’s tricky to be passionate about something and also open minded,” she added. “But you should learn from your experiences and be open to changing your path because it might get even more interesting. There is always more than one way to get where you want to go.”

Belcher also explained why she was happy to take time out from her teaching and research to deliver ASU’s Distinguished Lectureship in Science.

“I became a professor because I like to teach undergraduate students,” Belcher said. “That made the ASU lectureship very appealing to me, because the audience is primarily undergraduates. I’m also a Texan, so it was good to come back to Texas.”

“I also think that as a faculty member, it’s fun to interact with young, excited and bright students and give them some advice during the important transitions they are going through. I think the reason to be a professor is to be a teacher, so I’m honored when I’m asked to come talk to students.”