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Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Moving past trial and error: Applying math to design new materials and processes for drug manufacturing

MIT News
Feb 15, 2012

Richard Braatz. Photo: Dominick Reuter

Trial-and-error experimentation underlies many biomedical innovations. This classic method — define a problem, test a proposed solution, learn from failure and try again — is the main route by which scientists discover new biomaterials and drugs today. This approach is also used to design ways of manufacturing these new materials, but the process is immensely time-consuming, producing a successful therapeutic product and its manufacturing process only after years of experiments, at considerable expense.

Richard Braatz, the Edwin R. Gilliland Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT, applies mathematics to streamline the development of pharmaceuticals. Trained as an applied mathematician, Braatz is developing mathematical models to help scientists quickly and accurately design processes for manufacturing drug compounds with desired characteristics. Through mathematical simulations, Braatz has designed a system that significantly speeds the design of drug-manufacturing processes; he is now looking to apply the same mathematical approach to designing new biomaterials and nanoscale devices.

“Nanotechnology is very heavily experimental,” Braatz says. “There are researchers who do computations to gain insights into the physics or chemistry of nanoscale systems, but do not apply these computations for their design or manufacture. I want to push systematic design methods to the nanoscale, and to other areas where such methods aren’t really developed yet, such as biomaterials.”

From farm to formulas

Braatz’s own academic path was anything but systematic. He spent most of his childhood on an Oregon farm owned by his grandfather. Braatz says he absorbed an engineer’s way of thinking early on from his father, an electrician, by examining his father’s handiwork on the farm and reading his electrical manuals.

Braatz also developed a serious work ethic. From the age of 10, he awoke early every morning — even on school days — to work on the farm. In high school, he picked up a night job at the local newspaper, processing and delivering thousands of newspapers to stores and the post office, sometimes until just before dawn.

After graduating from high school in 1984, Braatz headed to Alaska for the summer. A neighbor had told him that work paid well up north, and Braatz took a job at a fish-processing facility, driving forklifts and hauling 100-pound bags of fishmeal 16 hours a day. He returned each summer for four years, eventually working his way up to plant operator, saving enough money each summer to pay for the next year’s tuition at Oregon State University.

As an undergraduate, Braatz first planned to major in electrical engineering. But finding the introductory coursework unstimulating — given the knowledge he’d absorbed from his father — he cast about for another major.
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