News

Molecular Engineering Director named

Matthew Tirrell from the University of California Berkeley will serve as the director of the Institute for Molecular Engineering beginning July 1.

Photo: Maroon Staff/The Chicago Maroon
Matthew Tirrell

University scientists and faculty have chosen a leader for the University’s first major foray into the field of engineering as the founding director of the Institute for Molecular Engineering (IME).

A joint committee of scientists and faculty from the University and the Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory unanimously voted in Matthew Tirrell, currently the chair at the Department of Bioengineering at the University of California Berkeley.

Tirrell will begin his new position July 1, months before construction begins on the $215 million William Eckhardt Research Center that will house the Institute.

“We were considering candidates from Europe, from anywhere around the world,” said Margaret Gardel, a professor in the physics department who sat on the nine-person search committee that formed last May. “We were looking at people who had demonstrated leadership in building organizations.”

Gardel added that Tirrell’s success as Dean of Engineering at the University of California—Santa Barbara, as well as his pioneering research on polymer physics in the 1990s, showed that he was a strong fit to lead the University’s venture into molecular engineering. “He really was a complete package, both in terms of his innovative research and in his capacity to lead at the university level,” she said.

Tirrell has spoken about the social benefits of molecular engineering, a field that he considers to be “the path from science to society.”

“I envision the Institute for Molecular Engineering to be what I’d like to call a translational kind of institute that is operating right at the forefront of modern science and is able to use all of the tools of modern science, but translating those tools into agents to attack engineering problems in society,” Tirrell said in a March 7 press release.

Currently, the University has no engineering program at either the undergraduate or graduate levels. However, after the Institute becomes operational in 2015, it may seed a new department for undergraduate study, according to President Robert Zimmer.

“Ultimately, this has the potential to attract undergrads who have engineering interests,” University spokesman Jeremy Manier said. “[The Institute] contributes to the diversity of the University, obviously, but it’s also something that contributes to the research environment.”

Tirrell is also excited about the prospect of undergraduates taking advantage of the Institute’s offerings.

“Students, as much as they’re interested in depth and fundamentals, are also extremely eager to have that favorable impact on society,” he said.

According to Gardel, molecular engineering is considered to be an emerging field with vast, untapped potential for applications in a variety of industries, including health care, electronics, and energy.

Working on a molecular scale, scientists can create and manipulate materials that might allow for technologies that previously only occupied the realm of science fiction, such as nanoparticles that can circulate inside the human body, detecting ailments that otherwise would be undetectable.

University administrators introduced the possibility of a molecular engineering program in 2007, and a series of internal and external committees discussed the issue over the course of the next three years. The Council of the University Senate voted in favor of establishing the program, and the Board of Trustees provided the final go-ahead in 2010.

The Institute is slated to open in 2015.