Prof. Aryeh Weiss: Better Bioengineering Education – From the Bottom Up

Judaism emphasizes education for self-reliance, whether it's learning a trade, or teaching children to swim.  But in the teaching lab being developed by Prof. Aryeh Weiss, self-reliance is built from the bottom up, as students "get their feet wet" while burnishing the employability bona-fides.  Under Weiss' tutelage, students will be challenged to move the state-of-the-art forward by constructing – and even improving – the instrumentation that makes scientific discovery possible.


"I want students to experience what they're learning about," says Weiss, a Chicago-born, MIT-trained expert on imaging and microscopy who is a faculty member both at the School of Engineering and in the Bar-Ilan  Institute of Nanotechnology and Advanced Materials (BINA).  "So instead of just using the tools, they get into the nuts and bolts of the machines themselves. Not only does this provide the basis for new research, it produces students who understand the process of instrument design."


Instrument design has long been a passion for Weiss, a self-defined "enabler" who regularly collaborates with biological researchers, establishing protocols that make it possible to achieve useable scientific data using existing imaging technology.  And if the technology's not up to snuff, Weiss doesn't hesitate to check under the hood.


"An exciting and novel tool in biology is the Atomic Force Microscope," Weiss says. "I bought our AFM as a kit, and built it myself.  Not only does this save money, it provides an opportunity to fully understand the instrument, and enables us to design the course so that this understanding is passed on to our students.  This is the kind of hands-on expertise that our students require."


True to his roots, Weiss' teaching lab is patterned after a similar lab at MIT, but adapted to meet the needs of the Bar-Ilan program. The lab is designed for students completing a concentration in bio-engineering, as part of a four-year Electrical Engineering degree. In addition to improving the "marketability" of graduates for Israel's growing biotech sector, Weiss says that that the range of skills required to do this type of work has educational value of its own.


"Our students study with faculty members who themselves are designing new research tools, biomedical devices and computational techniques. The bio-engineering track allows the students to acquire a broad education, which includes topics not found in the tightly focused programs of most science degrees." Weiss declares.  "That's called being educated."


In his own imaging research, Weiss has collaborated on projects ranging from drug discovery, to cancer therapeutics, to the characterization of fluorescent materials, and he recently developed a technique that enables computers to quantify nanoparticle uptake in living cells, using time-lapse microscopy. But no matter what the challenge, the common denominator is Weiss's can-do attitude.


"Along with the single AFM I've built – ideally, our lab should have two – and our conventional microscopes, the lab will include a system for studying dynamic processes in DNA," he says. "So I designed one.  Not only will we save money, but the students will have the opportunity to set up each part of the instrument from scratch. This is a crucial component of their education."


With a capacity of 12, time-sharing in Weiss' teaching lab is at a premium, and more students join the program each year. But alongside hopes for expansion – something that will require significant financial investment – Weiss stays focused by staying practical.  To take a page from the Hollywood playbook, if he builds it, they will come.