WPI Undergrads Investigate Internet, Insulin in Darmstadt

Contact: WPI Media Relations, 508-831-5616

WORCESTER, Mass. - Two teams of WPI undergraduates spent seven weeks at the Technische Hochschule Darmstadt (THD) in Germany last summer completing research that will help people understand developments in pharmaceutical biotechnology and ease their navigation of the World Wide Web.

Christopher Lengner of Center Valley, Pa., and Sarah Wilcox of Wakefield, Mass., studied social and economic implications and government regulations as they apply to the production of biosynthetic human insulin in the United States and Germany. In recombinant DNA technology, genetically modified organisms are used to produce insulin that is identical to natural human insulin. But the technology has aroused social concerns in Germany, particularly from the Green Party and the public concerns that forced pharmaceutical giant Hoechst AG to delay opening a biosynthetic human insulin (BHI) factory for 10 years. Americans, on the other hand, are more willing to accept this and similar technologies, as evidenced by the number and variety of recombinant DNA-generated products currently being sold in this country.

Lengner and Wilcox researched the history and public reaction to recombinant DNA technology. They determined that, in comparison to U.S. standards, the German safety standards that regulate Hoechst AG are sufficient to protect the environment and were strong enough to begin producing BHI. They determined that industry should do more to educate and inform the public; public schools should teach students about the risks and benefits of the technology; and that the German government would benefit from a more centralized agency to regulate the production and sale of drugs.

The second project showed that, unlike their counterparts at WPI, students and faculty at the Technische Hochschule do not regularly use the Internet. Steve Addison Bassett of Tacoma, Wash., and Michael Wood of Southington, Conn., developed a prototype for a user-friendly search engine to ease the journey into the Internet for those unfamiliar with the technology or put off by its complexity. Although the model can be used to search for information on any subject, Bassett and Wood focused on environmental studies for their project. The prototype is in the form of a diskette that includes directions for installation and use. The goal was to introduce beginning German students to the World Wide Web and to make them comfortable enough to use it more frequently.

The interface process begins when the user reviews a list of synonyms and other words (provided by the WPI students) related to the information a user may need to access in his or her search. After the individual selects the words that most clearly define the topic, the list is sent to a meta-search engine that in turn searches multiple search engines, compares the results, and creates a list of WWW sites where the information may be found. The system was designed to be upgraded from simple to complex searches, to accept passwords, and to accept a robot that searches the Web for pages related to individual searches.

"WPI has offered project opportunities at The Technische Hochschule Darmstadt since 1992," says William R. Grogan, dean emeritus of undergraduate studies. Grogan and David Dollenmayer, associate professor of German, served as project advisors. "THD is located in Hessen, a central German state near the main financial and transportation center of Frankfurt, which enables students to have access to a wealth of academic, business and cultural resources. Our student projects there are always well done and well-received by the sponsors."

A project is now under way to study the use of Management Information Systems in the German drug industry.

The Interactive Qualifying Project is one of three projects all undergraduates undertake as part of the innovative WPI Plan, a flexible, exciting and academically challenging program introduced in 1971. Under the Plan, students are provided with unique opportunities to integrate classroom studies with preprofessional academic projects conducted on campus or at companies, agencies and project sites in the U.S. and abroad. The purpose of the IQP is to make students aware of their responsibilities to manage technology effectively and ethically.

Lengner, a junior majoring in biotechnology, is the son of Mr. and Mrs. Joachim Lengner of Center Valley, Pa. He is president and house manager of Phi Sigma Kappa fraternity and a member of the Interfraternity Council and the intramural ice hockey team. Wilcox, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Joel Wilcox of Wakefield, Mass., graduated from Wakefield Memorial High School. She is enrolled in WPI's five-year B.S./M.S. program as a civil engineering major and will complete a minor in management. Wilcox is a resident advisor, a student hall director and a member of Skull, the university's senior honor society, Alpha Phi Omega, the national service fraternity, and the women's crew team, and works with Worcester's Habitat for Humanity organization.

Bassett, a graduate of Curtis Senior High School in Tacoma, Wash., is the son of Mae Bassett of Tacoma and David Bassett of Escondido, Calif. A junior majoring in computer engineering, he is president of the WPI Chapter of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) and a member of the sailing club, and enjoys camping, fishing, skiing and biking.

Wood, son of Mr. and Mrs. Michael Wood of Southington, Conn., graduated from Southington High School. He is majoring in mechanical engineering with a concentration in design at WPI.

WPI is an independent technological university founded in 1865. About one-third of the university's undergraduates complete their required projects with businesses and organizations at 18 locations in North America, Europe, Asia and Latin America—broadening their horizons, learning to work as professionals in other cultures, and seeing firsthand the role of science and technology in other countries. WPI students account for more than 10 percent of all U.S. engineering students studying abroad.