Admin mulls findings of engineering report

By Supriya Sinhababu

A report developed by a University faculty committee in February that discussed the possibility of launching a molecular engineering program at the U of C is currently under review by University administrators.

Appointed last year by President Robert Zimmer and Provost Thomas Rosenbaum, the Ad Hoc Faculty Committee on Molecular Engineering was tasked to gather faculty opinion on the possibility of such a program. The committee report currently under the administration’s review outlines the basic reasons and recommendations for the program that faculty have put forth.

“The President, along with the Board of Trustees, will make the call,” said Steven Sibener, a professor in the chemistry department who chaired the committee.

Provost Thomas Rosenbaum told the Chicago Business Journal last month that it will take at least six months to reach a decision on the program.

“Years ago, the decision was made not to create an engineering school because it was thought to be teaching a craft of device-design,” said Raphael Lee, a committee member and professor of surgery at the University.

According to significant faculty opinion, the creation of a molecular engineering program would now be a timely development.

“For the 16 to 17 years I’ve been here, there’s been a broad appreciation for the need to have more involvement with engineering,” Lee said.

The committee report asserts that the time is now particularly ripe to pursue molecular engineering.

“There is a critical time when key, empowering discoveries and technical developments lead to revolutionary rather than evolutionary advances,” the report said. “We find that the field of molecular engineering, at this early stage of inception, is well matched to the culture and strengths of the University of Chicago.”

Sibener echoed the report, noting the particular benefits of engineering at the molecular level.

“In particular, what has occurred is the boundaries between science, in molecular level systems especially, and basic sciences has blurred,” said Sibener. “So it’s clear that we’re not considering a classical engineering school where we’re making things out of concrete and steel. The great opportunity, I think, is clearly systems, functional systems at the molecular level.”

The committee sought out faculty input “in the true Chicago way,” Sibener said, holding two town hall-style meetings with invitations to all Physical Sciences Divison and Biological Sciences Division members.

“We were much more than just an antenna,” said Sibener. “We were asking, does this make sense? Why or why not?”

The report gave a conservative cost estimate of $250 million for the program’s launch and growth.

“This initiative, regardless of its final scale, will be expensive,” the report said. “It should not be launched without the proper financial foundation and enduring University commitment that will be needed to make it internationally competitive at the highest level.”

Engineering is not a completely foreign pursuit for the University.

“It’s probably less of a departure in some branches of medicine,” said Sibener. “Biomedical engineering—we have some of that at the University already.”

Even in these areas, however, Lee believes the University can improve.

“You look at the growth in regenerative medicine and tissue engineering,” said Lee. “These are areas in which the University has not developed as much as some other places, like Northwestern, or Stanford, or MIT.”

Both Sibener and Lee agreed that education would be an essential component of any molecular engineering program.

“This is a university, not just a research institute,” said Lee. “On the other hand, the best students are going to be attracted to the most important, most visionary research efforts. They go hand in hand.”

Lee noted that when soliciting faculty opinion for the committee report, the medical school claimed it had lost many top candidates to schools with engineering programs.

The report estimates that the curriculum for graduate programs leading to an M.S. or Ph.D. in molecular engineering would take a year to develop, while an undergraduate degree program would take three years to devise. Both graduate and undergraduate programs could draw on existing University courses, but new courses, and possibly new faculty, would also be required.

For a school with no applied sciences or engineering school, a molecular engineering program is a shift in focus.

“It will be different,” said Sibener. “But it will be done in the Chicago style. We’re not looking to recreate the chemical engineering companies of the last century. We’re very good at things we already do—that’s why I think this can succeed.”