Committee debates engineering plan

By Chris Ross

A faculty committee appointed by President Robert Zimmer and Provost Thomas Rosenbaum is currently drafting a report that will explore the possibility of creating a molecular engineering program at the University of Chicago.

Administrators think that the new program could advance the biological and physical sciences at the University and provide valuable links to research institutions and corporate donors.

“ thinking about whether it is the right thing to do, considering the intellectual opportunities, how it would connect to the larger science program, whether there are compelling arguments for or against, and consulting faculty,” Zimmer said.

Composed primarily of faculty from the biological and physical science departments, the committee has consulted with faculty members from several disciplines and held two faculty town hall meetings to discuss the proposal.

Zimmer and Committee Chair Steven J. Sibener, a professor in the chemistry department, emphasized that the committee is considering a molecular engineering program rather than an engineering school.

“We charged them specifically with thinking about molecular engineering, not about mechanical or civil engineering,” Zimmer said.

“There are a lot of universities that have engineering schools—civil, mechanical, so on, places making concrete and steel,” Sibener said. “That’s not what we’re considering. We’re considering a unit for the future, which would illuminate how molecular systems function.”

The lack of an engineering program differentiates the U of C from other universities, said Neil Shubin, a professor of biology and anatomy.

“ are all basic science, and that works for and against us. I’d say that right now, it is primarily working against us. We lack the kind of expertise that links science to new technologies,” Shubin said.

“It turns out that science is changing,” Sibener said. “Most engineering used to be top-down: how do you make big things smaller, refining discoveries and so on. Now, a lot of discoveries are bottom-up, starting at the level of molecular systems.”

Molecular engineering, which deals with the manufacture, manipulation, and study of molecules, has made important contributions to pharmaceutical research and materials science.

The field’s resemblance to nanotechnology has led the committee to explore potential synergies with Argonne National Labs, which recently established a $72 million nanotechnology research center.

The faculty response to the proposal has been almost uniformly positive.

“A lot of what we do in my department is looking at tissues, how they form, how wounds heal, regeneration,” Shubin said. “This is where there’s an intersection with surgery and molecular engineering.

It’s a nice initiative; it touches on a lot of different fields.”

Shubin, who also recruits prospective faculty, noted that a molecular engineering program could make the University a more attractive institution for students, teachers, and researchers.

“Many times we’ve lost the recruiting war to universities which do have some sort of engineering program,” he said.

While there have been very few voices against the idea of instituting a molecular engineering program, Sibener said financial and human resources questions have been raised.

“It’d be a different donor pool who’d be excited than the kinds the University has traditionally worked with,” he said. “In the fundraising world, people would be excited to empower such a new program.”

The committee’s report will be released to the public upon completion.