Problem SolvingLee Flaherty '12 | July 18, 2010
When I think of how I might solve a technical problem, I often look to the living things around me for inspiration. Almost every problem we come across today, life has had millions of years (at least) of exposure to; as a result, there are many examples at every level of biology that can be used as models for modern, human concerns.
In order to properly develop and reproduce, cells (and organisms as a whole) require certain conditions for their complex parts to function; these sets of idealized conditions are collectively called homeostasis. The pursuit of homeostasis is everything that anything living does when it is not reproducing. It is a struggle for balance in a dynamic world governed by the tendency to proceed towards disorder. Hmm, facilitating predictable conditions by harnessing the natural flow of energy? It certainly seems to me that life’s mechanisms for maintaining homeostasis are excellent case studies in practical problem solving.
Why design a solution anew when nature has probably selected for a similar, efficient solution already? Whether the design is purely structural or more infrastructural, everything from proteins, signaling pathways, cell structure, anatomy, through to even an organism’s behavior and the social organization of different species has the potential to lend insight. The more that can be understood about life, the more of such examples we have. It is primarily with this mindset that I approach when pondering practical problems.
While not everything in life is relevant to what you look at, if you know where to look you can usually get a good idea of what might work. Anything highly conserved, or anything that came about independently across many different species is usually a good place to start, although niche tasks may require looking for specialty processes in organisms suited to such a niche.
Why am I even posting this? Isn’t this blog supposed to be about my internship? Well, I don’t feel like I should be discussing every aspect of my work, for one. Whether it is because they are basic construction tasks not worthy of mention or interesting design features that it might not do to share, I have little to say either way. My other reason is that, as a biology major in a working environment decidedly different from a lab, I want to show that an education in microbiology does not at all relegate one to a laboratory. It is the thought process cultivated and the vast trove of biological models that are truly valuable, and with effort these skills and lessons can be applied in situations far beyond the petri dishes and gels of a sterile room with tile floors and black countertops. Learning from life, no matter how in-depth your work may be, can still engage you in the world more than it removes you through specialization. This blog post is to show that despite being steeped in an academic, scientific background, what one thus learns can readily be used for addressing a wide variety of practical problems, the world over.