Campus research lecture covers history of biomolecular engineering, biotechnology

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UC Berkeley professor Harvey Blanch explained the intricate and increasingly valuable world of biotechnology to students, faculty and other community members at a lecture held Thursday at International House.

In his address, Blanch took a step back from contemporary research to provide a comprehensive overview of the history of biology, chemistry and, eventually, the conception of biomolecular engineering and biotechnology. He noted that the future of bioengineering depends on the merging of various disciplines.

“We need the ability to do straight engineering very quickly, and this is where synthetic biology becomes very important,” Blanch said in his lecture. “We’re (also) going to need some chemistry to be able to identify materials.”

Blanch is a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering and currently concentrates his research on transport, kinetics and thermodynamics in enzymatic and microbial processes. His studies have aided further understanding of various processes — gas-liquid mass transfer, mixing and fermentation. More recently, Blanch has explored a renewed look at the next generation of biofuels.

Since its conception in 1913, the Martin Meyerson Faculty Research Lectures have invited campus faculty members such as Wendell Latimer, Ernest Lawrence and George Pimentel to deliver colloquiums on their research. Each year, the UC Berkeley Academic Senate selects two faculty members to present their distinguished research in two separate public forums. According to Cathy Koshland — who is the vice provost in teaching, learning, academic planning and facilities — the colloquiums are a longstanding tradition.

“The lectures give the campus community an opportunity to hear from (UC Berkeley’s) very highest faculty,” Koshland said in her introduction to Blanch’s lecture.

 A couple of the students who attended the lecture were pleased with Blanch’s ability to contextualize his research in the broader scope of societal impact and provide a comprehensive depiction of his research within a clear framework.

 “He simplified a lot of the complicated biotechnology stuff down,” said Pranav Ambadi, a UC Berkeley freshman studying molecular and cell biology. “I can see the relevance of the stuff I’ve done in lab and in Chem 1A … at the time we were like, ‘What are we doing?’ But the same types of steps were shown in (Blanch’s) presentation.”

In accord with audience members’ positive reception of the talk, Beverly Ingram, assistant director in External Relations and Office of Protocol, appreciated the turnout at Thursday’s lecture.

“I think it went really well; we love to see a mix of students, faculty, community members, everyone,” Ingram said. “(Lecturers) do prepare to speak to a mixed audience, but they certainly don’t dumb it down. We never do that at Berkeley.”

Contact Zoe Kleinfeld at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @zoekleinfeld.