By Steve Koppes
Image courtesy of David Awschalom

Matthew Tirrell probably has some idea of what pioneering physicist Albert A. Michelson experienced when University of Chicago founding President William Rainey Harper hired him in 1892 to build a physics department from scratch.

Last year Tirrell became the founding Pritzker Director of the University’s new Institute for Molecular Engineering, which will develop the tools of modern science to address societal problems in fields such as health care, energy, information technology, and the environment. The opportunities are not unlike those that greeted Michelson, who assembled one of the world’s foremost physics programs. Tirrell’s group is taking on the added challenge of helping to build a new field of study just as it is being defined.

“The idea of the Institute for Molecular Engineering is really unique in engineering,” Tirrell says. “It’s a chance to do something special in a clear playing field.”

Scholars at leading edge of technology

The Institute expects to hire at least 24 faculty members within a decade, setting off a flurry of program-building activity rarely seen in academia today. Last June, Tirrell announced the hiring of three founding faculty members in molecular engineering, all of whom, like him, have joint appointments at Argonne National Laboratory, the University’s partner in founding the Institute. These faculty members, in turn, hope to attract still more colleagues to take on the fresh challenge.

Also joining the team in September as the Institute’s executive director was tech industry veteran Sharon Feng. Her duties will include acting as a high-level liaison between the Institute, its partners and industry.

The new faculty appointees are the vanguard of a growing, team-based collaborative enterprise that will explore innovative technologies in nanoscale manipulation and design at and below the molecular scale.

Chemical engineers Juan de Pablo and Paul Nealey, both formerly of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, joined the Institute on Sept. 1. The appointment of physicist-engineer David Awschalom, of the University of California, Santa Barbara, will begin in early 2013.

All three researchers are in various stages of bringing to Chicago the postdoctoral scientists and graduate students that form the core of their current research groups. Further ahead, the Institute will develop courses for graduate and undergraduate students, and formally propose a graduate program.

“This year has been consumed with a really exciting process of identifying and attracting these new colleagues, and that process goes on,” Tirrell told the attendees of a welcome reception held for his new colleagues in July. As momentum continues to build, “the idea of molecular engineering and what the University of Chicago is doing in molecular engineering is really turning heads in the technical world.”

Research to help enrich lives

The Institute has made a temporary home for its administrative and faculty offices on the second floor of the George Herbert Jones Laboratory building, with temporary laboratory space on the first floor of the adjoining Searle Chemistry Building. Construction of the Institute’s permanent home one block north on Ellis Avenue, the William Eckhardt Research Center, is scheduled for completion in early 2015. The Institute will share the Eckhardt Center with portions of the Physical Sciences Division, an arrangement that will encourage interdisciplinary collaboration.

Tirrell envisions what he calls “a translational institute,” one that converts new research into solutions that enrich lives.

“In some sense, all of engineering is translational, but the Institute for Molecular Engineering is especially targeted at translating molecular science into important solutions to engineering problems,” Tirrell says.

Innovation is the watchword in these collaborations. Innovative methods that de Pablo and Nealey jointly developed at Wisconsin for creating nanostructures earned a spot on the International Roadmap for Semiconductors, which identifies technologies critical to the semiconductor industry’s miniaturization goals.

Their efforts capitalize on the ability of certain types of macromolecules to self-assemble into regular shapes, forming useful structures that are similar to those encountered in electronic circuits. They envision that much of the hard work of producing ultra-small nanostructures could be carried out by the molecules themselves, reducing cost and enabling manufacture of new generations of electronic and memory devices.

With complementary backgrounds that span soft and hard materials, biotechnology and nanotechnology, experimental synthesis and computer simulation, all four IME faculty members share ambitious plans that seek to revolutionize modern engineering.

“This challenge of building a new institute from the ground up just doesn’t happen every day,” says Nealey. “It’s a career opportunity that is truly special and unique.”

Building upon strength in the sciences

The Institute marks the University’s debut on the engineering stage, which the new researchers see as a plus because it offers ample room to innovate. At the same time, a star-studded cast of colleagues awaits them on the Hyde Park campus.

“The University of Chicago has great strength in the physical, biological, and medical sciences. We’d like to build on that strength as we develop the new Institute for Molecular Engineering,” de Pablo says.

Awschalom has developed experimental techniques that enable scientists to observe and control quantum states in semiconductors and nanostructures at the atomic scale, extending to individual electrons. Discoveries arising from his research are helping to drive the nascent fields of spintronics (manipulating the spin of electrons for technological applications) and quantum computation.

Quantum information processing involves manipulating quantum states of matter to develop new medical imaging, computation, and communication technologies that have the potential to transcend today’s capabilities. “It’s a very exciting time for undergraduates and graduate students to pursue careers in science and technology,” Awschalom says. “The IME has an opportunity to train a new generation of ‘quantum engineers’.”

It is a dramatic time in theatrical terms as well, because the Institute’s interdisciplinary collaborations will extend into the arts. Creating and developing new theater work inspired by science and technology will be the domain of Nancy Kawalek, who begins her appointment as professor and distinguished fellow in the arts, sciences and technology at the Institute early next year.

Kawalek is the founding director of STAGE—Scientists, Technologists and Artists Generating Exploration at the California NanoSystems Institute at the University of California, Santa Barbara. The STAGE Collaboratory, which Kawalek will move to Chicago, fosters the creation of multimedia theater pieces in which science and technology play prominent roles in content, form, or both.

Making history

Repeating the trailblazing success of Albert Michelson would be a steep challenge. Michelson, who in 1907 became the first American to receive a Nobel Prize in the sciences, recruited UChicago scholars Robert Millikan and Arthur Holly Compton—who both also went on to win Nobels. But whatever lies ahead, Tirrell and his new team believe they are at the brink of another historic opportunity.

“The people we want will really be excited by the special character and uniqueness of the Institute for Molecular Engineering,” Tirrell says. “It’s about making discoveries and making an impact in society. There’s nothing more energizing for a scholar than that.”