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Cybernetics combines many disciplines

By Jeyling Chou

Nov. 18, 2004 9:00 p.m.

When fourth-year student John Vaszari tells people what his
major is, questions about robots and artificial intelligence
frequently follow.

At interviews for medical school this fall, Vaszari has given
the same well-rehearsed explanation to doctors and admissions
boards when they ask the inevitable question about

An undergraduate interdepartmental program at UCLA since 1972,
cybernetics is the study of control and communication processes in
biological systems ““ cell movement translated into the
language of engineering, protein interactions described with math
equations. And, yes, sometimes that means robots.

More than ever, current scientific research is undertaken in an
environment of interdisciplinary collaboration. Biochemists and
geneticists have paired with engineers to compile the massive data
from the Human Genome Project, for example.

Biotechnology and pharmaceuticals also need the tools of
mathematical modeling for drug and medical technology

The time of cybernetics has come, said program chair Joe

“These tools have been around for a long time,”
DiStefano said. “But their utility and power wasn’t
recognized because the demand wasn’t great enough.”

The UCLA program attracts students who have a broad interest
across the sciences, math and engineering. Vaszari himself
considered doubling in psychobiology and computer science in his
first year, before discovering a perfect combination in

But there are currently only 26 cybernetics students on

According to Vaszari, the entire graduating cybernetics class
once held up the letters to spell “Cybernetics” at the

“Usually, the students come to us,” DiStefano said,
adding that the major is not for everyone.

“You have to be able to do a lot of different
things,” Vaszari said. “You have to be a math person
and a biology person.”

The cybernetics major and pre-major require the most classes of
any program in the UCLA College. Students have to take
prerequisites in both the life sciences and engineering before
choosing a concentration within the major.

Despite the challenging coursework, half of the students in the
department maintain honors standing.

“It’s an intense major, but the benefit is
it’s very small so you get a lot of personal
attention,” said Steven Engel, associate professor and chair
of the cognitive science area of the psychology department.

Cybernetics students have quarterly meetings with DiStefano, and
they have faculty advisers to tailor the program to their

In fall 2003, DiStefano gave up half of his lab space in Boelter
Hall to create a cybernetics commons, a place for the few students
to study and socialize between classes. By entering an electronic
access code to unlock the door, students can use the commons’
computer lab, refrigerator and microwave. Study groups are formed,
lunches are eaten, and ideas are exchanged. Graduate students from
DiStefano’s biocybernetics laboratory down the hall help
mentor their undergraduate counterparts, and sometimes engage them
in research projects.

The commons is also adjacent to the office of Beth Rubin, the
program’s student affairs officer, who advises the students
on class scheduling and career paths.

“I’ve gone to career fairs and have spoken to
different people from bioengineering to biomedical instrumentation
companies,” Rubin said.

“They look at the curriculum and see that it’s
broad-based and has very rigorous basic training in an
interdisciplinary nature ““ this is what they want to see in
students today,” Rubin said.

Cybernetics students take several core courses that introduce
them to the language of cybernetics. Different UCLA faculty are
invited each week to present their research, and the applications
of cybernetics they use. But due to the interdepartmental nature of
the program, most classes that students take will never mention the
word “cybernetics” during an entire quarter.

“I still don’t really know what cybernetics itself
is ““ I have a vague idea, but I can’t put it into
words,” said third-year cybernetics student, Kevin Jhangiani.
“I know where you can go from it, and I think that’s
what’s important.”

UCLA is unique in offering this kind of interdisciplinary
training at the undergraduate level.

“This is jump-starting stuff that a lot of people wait
(until graduate school) for, but we think for motivated
undergraduates, it’s important to give them the opportunity
to do this early,” Engel said.

Providing a broad scientific and analytical background, the
major provides preparation for graduate level research in a variety
of fields. It is a joke in the department that students like
Vaszari are among the few who are “lost to med school”
““ on the path to clinical medicine, which does not involve as
many of the engineering principles of cybernetics.

But as a cybernetics major, Vaszari does not consider himself

“It gave me a different background than most pre-med
people have,” Vaszari said. “It expanded my horizons,
and I learned a lot more stuff than if I had just stuck with
psychobiology or computer science.”

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Jeyling Chou
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