An engineering professor illustrates the latest science by referring back to classic sci-fi films for an introductory class on biotechnology
When Nisha Iyer’s students do their homework—watching, say, the blockbuster Jurassic Park or the manga-inspired Ghost in the Shell—they need to be thinking about questions like, what are the ethics of genetically engineering animals? What’s the relationship between technology and AI and neuroscience? How is memory formed?
That’s because the students are taking Sci-Fi and Biotechnology, one of 17 classes called EN1, mostly aimed at first-semester students trying to decide what kind of engineering to major in. Iyer, an assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, arrived at Tufts last fall and straight off taught the course for the first time, and is teaching it again this fall.
“I think sci-fi is a great way to talk about really complex ideas and science, exploring scientific history and what’s happening now,” she says. “Science fiction is very reflective of the things that are happening in society as it pertains to science—and the fears about it.”
Through the semester, the course exposes students to contemporary biotechnology, biomedical engineering design principles, and other issues, such as bioethics and regulations around research. The breadth of the course “gives students the opportunity to think about what they’re really interested in and passionate about, so they can figure out what they want to do for their next four years here,” Iyer says.
Holden Kittelberger, E26, who took the class as a first-year student last year, was going to take an EN1 course focused on computer science, which he planned to major in. But when he saw the Sci-Fi and Biotechnology course description, “I immediately fell in love with its content,” he says. “I was super interested in seeing how a college-level engineering course would break down my favorite movies.”
From Imagination to Reality
On the syllabus last fall were six films, including Gattaca, Avatar, and Never Let Me Go. “I think these movies offer such great organic ways to start having those conversations, and especially introduce freshmen to how science is actually happening in laboratories,” Iyer says.
With an intentionally small class size, there is plenty of room for discussion, which is a key part of the course. The films make up the core of the syllabus—each film has four to six classes built around it, with relevant guest lecturers.
Take Gattaca, a 1997 dystopian movie in which genetic tests determine your role in society. The class modules center around how genetics and gene-editing tools work and the role of gene-sequencing technologies. At the time the film was made, using genetics to predict human disease was merely a possibility. Now, Iyer says, it is becoming increasingly real.
Iyer invited a fellow professor to talk about her daughter, who has a rare epileptic disease, and how she’s working with a company to produce a gene therapy for her. “That sparked a discussion about how you genetically manipulate things for clinical purposes,” Iyer says. “Gattaca is a really good movie about ableism, how genetic determinism isn’t who you are, and how you can transcend your genetics,” she says. “It’s a great intro to these topics.”
Then there is Never Let Me Go, a dystopian movie from 2012 about young people whose organs are harvested for transplanting. “It’s not a classic sci-fi film, but I think it’s a very important film to think about what a meaningful life is,” Iyer says. “What should be our goals of scientific engineering of artificial organs? We don’t want to be using human clones in the future, but what are the ethical implications of a society that does that?”
The film led to a series of lectures on cloning, stem cells, and artificial organs, and a group project about how to create artificial organs—and the implications of that technology.
Iyer chose Ghost in the Shell to talk about neurophysiology, brain-computer interfaces, and neuroregeneration. A “very classic sci-fi,” Iyer says, the 1995 animated neo-noir cyberpunk thriller, the plot centers on a cyborg security agent hunting a mysterious hacker. The film brings up questions such as “what it means to be human, how memory is formed, and at what point you stop being human, and when technology starts to look like being human,” Iyer says.
“Our class had a combined debate with a human factors engineering class on the movie The Ghost in the Shell,” says Kittelberger. “We split into groups and had to argue how certain characters in the movie were human or not. In a movie where most of the characters have artificial brains, bodies, or both, the class discussion was very provocative and generated lots of interesting conversations.”
Trying to cover all biotechnology in a one-semester class isn’t easy, especially when the students are so attentive. “One of the problems in this class is that these students have really great questions, but I can’t answer those questions without giving a whole semester lecture on genetics or on biochemistry,” Iyer says.
Still, the movies “offer such great organic ways to start having conversations about science that is happening now, making them excited about science they might see in movies or TV shows and realize that we’re working on these problems now.”