Today, the University of Chicago announced plans to construct the William Eckhardt Research Center, an innovative new building along Ellis Avenue that will be home to many researchers in the physical sciences.
But just as newsworthy as the new building is one of its prominent tenants: the Institute for Molecular Engineering, the largest new department launched at the University since the Harris School of Public Policy in 1988. The Institute, called the IME for short, will serve as a bridge between the Physical Sciences Division and the Biological Sciences Division for shared goals in research and education.
But what exactly is molecular engineering? The specific mission of the IME will be set next year when a director is named, but the general direction of this exciting new discipline was summarized last year by a faculty committee appointed to evaluate the IME’s creation. ScienceLife talked to a few of those committee members to learn about what molecular engineering is, what kinds of problems it might solve, and what kind of students it will create.
Biology and medicine is increasingly focused on how small scale interactions are important for both normal function and disease. Simultaneously, engineers grounded in physics and chemistry are looking toward biological systems for ideas and solutions. Increasingly, physical and biological sciences are speaking the same language, said Raphael Lee, Paul and Ailene Russell Professor of Surgery, Medicine, and Organismal Biology & Anatomy.
“On the molecular scale, behavior is described by laws of physics and chemistry,” Lee said “The rules of biology and physics are identical at the molecule scale. That’s where the fields boundaries blur and overlap.”
At this common ground, molecular engineering provides a skill set for the next generation of scientists to address the world’s biggest problems. The knowledge gathered through basic science in biology, chemistry, and physics laboratories can be combined and applied to major issues, such as providing clean water to undeveloped countries, or developing more efficient energy sources.
“This is making the science much more applied: we know how it works, so let’s try to make it better. How do we apply that knowledge to these problems that we see,” said Erin Adams, Assistant Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics.
Molecular engineering innovation may also lead to the development of new technologies for medical care. Scaffolds for stem cell treatment might be designed through engineering, chemistry, and biology collaboration. Animals that have evolved natural self-healing abilities could inform the design of materials that repair themselves, which could in turn be used for the design of industrial products and medical devices.
“I think it’s entirely possible that new kinds of tools could be generated in molecular engineering that would have therapeutic implications,” said Julian Solway, Professor of Medicine and Pediatrics. “The problems that we’re addressing are the same problems, and the solutions that we want to find are well-suited to be approached by both camps.”
A future goal of the Institute for Molecular Engineering will be to establish an academic program for undergraduates and graduate students. Such a curriculum would prepare new scientists to navigate the new discipline, producing “bilingual” or “trilingual” experts, equally comfortable with the languages of physics, chemistry, and biology.
“I think people are starting to speak multiple languages which allows us to communicate with each other much better,” Adams said. “You need to break those boundaries to get to the next level of engineering.”
Perhaps the most exciting thing about molecular engineering is that nobody is yet quite clear what that next level will be: what problems it will solve, and what tools it will develop to solve them. But with biology, medicine, physics, and chemistry finding more and more common ground, facilitating their interaction while defining a nascent field could bring unexpected benefits.
“Engineering is about solving problems, and we are in the business of solving problems,” Solway said. “It’s refreshing and hopefully this will expand the University’s horizons.”
For more information on the Eckhardt Center and the Institute for Molecular Engineering (including more renderings and video), see Steve Koppes’ story at the University of Chicago website.