Skip to content
MIT Better World

By Stephanie M. McPherson SM ’11

Living Machines

Eric Alm (thread co-chair), Karl Van Tassel (1925) Career Development Professor, Biological Engineering; Director, Center for Microbiome Informatics and Therapeutics
Linda Griffith (thread co-chair), Teaching Innovation Professor of Biological and Mechanical Engineering; and Director, Center for Gynepathology Research
Timothy Kassis, Lead Instructor, NEET

First Offering
Fall 2017

Cohort entering in 2017: 13
Cohort entering in 2018: 29

From the Catalog
A curriculum “thread” within the New Engineering Education Transformation program, or NEET, Living Machines is an interdisciplinary project-centric program emphasizing novel research output. Students will develop the intellectual and technical skills to create a “gut-microbiome-on-a-chip”: a computational and highly instrumented in vitro experimental model of the human gut. They will build the device from stem cells and learn how to power and image it, as well as how to measure and computationally model the way drugs, microbes, and immune cells change its function. The vision is that this technology will ultimately replace the use of animals in drug research and development.

Living Machines projects are highly interactive with local industry partners and merge clinical medicine, systems biology, microfabrication/microfluidics, tissue engineering, stem cell biology, sensors and optics, mechatronics, biomaterials, and immunology.

  • Dorothy Szymkiewicz ’20: “This can really show me what the intersection of mechanical engineering and biology entails.”

Year by Year
Students complete three year-long Living Machines project classes:

Sophomores: Small groups structured as startup companies compete to make simplified versions of the gut-microbiome-on-a-chip. If students come up with a novel approach, they may file a “patent” with an instructor to ensure no other team can copy it.

  • Kassis: “The goal of the first year is basically to get their hands wet, learn the lab techniques, and have them interact together in these interdisciplinary teams from different majors.”

Juniors: Individual students explore in-depth areas of the device in one of 17 labs around MIT. Each student’s particular project is tailored to their postgraduation intentions.

  • Kassis: “If a student is interested in a PhD program, they work on a project with publication potential. For people interested in starting their own company, we give them a project that has commercialization potential. People interested in med school work on a clinically oriented project.”

Seniors: Students reconvene as one large group and synthesize everything they have learned throughout the previous two years to create their final iteration of the device.

Sample Course Load
While class requirements are individualized depending on students’ interests, some general recommendations beyond NEET seminar and project classes could include:

20.110J/2.772J Thermodynamics of Biomolecular Systems
20.309J/2.673J Instrumentation and Measurement for Biological Systems
2.00 Introduction to Design

Students should also fulfill the NEET Intellectual Diversity Requirement by taking at least one or two subjects offered by departments outside of their majors.

Students surveyed during the pilot year listed  “being part of a community” as one of the top benefits of NEET. The Living Machines community encompasses anyone pursuing a technical degree; current enrollees are studying biological, chemical, mechanical, and electrical engineering as well as computer science and architecture. Despite their different focuses, students are united by their interest in biotechnology applications. Students work shoulder to shoulder with the Living Machines faculty, and gain career insights and professional connections through a rotating lecture series of industry leaders excited about the NEET approach.

  • Rebekah Costello ’20: “I believe that the program is a future direction for engineering education because it’s interdisciplinary and teamwork based, which is reflective of what the workforce is going to be like.”
  • Ronit Langer ’20: “One of my favorite parts is the incredible mentors that you have access to. Working with Timothy Kassis has provided me with so much insight and guidance.”

The Living Machines thread has invited some students to take on leadership positions. (This will be adopted by the other NEET threads in the 2018–19 academic year. ) An academic liaison helps bridge gaps between departments and schools. A communications liaison works to engage local media and other stakeholders interested in learning more about this initiative. An industry liaison brings the attention of local industry leaders to the students’ projects to help them build relationships that will last after they graduate with the Living Machines NEET certificate.