From the ground up

With the Institute for Molecular Engineering, UChicago fills a historical void and hopes to shape the scientific future.

Matthew Tirrell studies micelles, collections of lipid molecules that form spontaneously in water. The founding Pritzker director of the Institute for Molecular Engineering (IME), Tirrell has developed a type of micelle that, when injected into mice, migrates to the location of artery-hardening plaque. Using that homing capability, he says, scientists could tailor micelles for diagnostic or therapeutic uses—dissolving blood clots, for example, or delivering medication to treat a tumor. Designing structures to achieve such ends involves a process called molecular self-assembly. “When you put things together in a beaker, they don’t chemically react,” Tirrell says, “but they spontaneously organize into structures that are useful.”

The Institute for Molecular Engineering operates with similar spontaneity and utility. Faculty members are encouraged—expected, really—to organize themselves into problem-solving teams. Tirrell, who arrived at Chicago in 2011, has focused on attracting researchers who think beyond their specific expertise. As chair of the University of California, Berkeley’s bioengineering department—and before that at UC, Santa Barbara, where he spent a decade as dean of engineering—he showed “incredible intellectual breadth,” says former Provost Thomas F. Rosenbaum, attracting talent from across disciplines.

Matthew Tirrell
Matthew Tirrell, a chemical engineer by training, is the founding Pritzker director of the Institute for Molecular Engineering. Photography by Jason Smith

A chemical engineer by training, Tirrell spent 22 years at the University of Minnesota, where his work included adhesion, friction, and lubrication for 3M, studying the surface properties of polymers. “About ten or 15 years ago, my interest within that domain shifted more toward biological interaction,” he says. “If you put a synthetic material”—such as an implantable medical device—“into a physiological environment, how does it interact with the physiological environment?” That question led him to the micelles he studies now.

The variety of applications for molecular-level research all but demands such wide-angle vision. Chicago chemistry postdoc Dimitris Priftis, another former Berkeley colleague of Tirrell’s, studies polyelectrolyte particles that can be used in cosmetics, food products, and also to make the display for the Amazon Kindle. “I want people that are broad and versatile enough to think about applications not only in health care but energy, environment, maybe even in computing: how does biology transform information? Stuff like that,” Tirrell says. “That’s going to mean that we’re going to have people skilled in biology working with people skilled in electrical engineering—unusual combinations.”

An expansive field

The Institute for Molecular Engineering is a microcosm of its own discipline—new and exciting, with far-reaching potential, but difficult even for its own scientists to define. “Molecular engineering, what does that mean?” asks chemical engineer Sarah Perry, one of Tirrell’s postdocs, answering with a shrugging blur of phrase meant to say, I don’t know. She prefers it that way. “With all this idea of collaboration and bringing people together, that little bit of ambiguity and that lack of prejudice is probably really, really helpful.”

Even the name Institute for Molecular Engineering carries implications Tirrell feels compelled to explain. “The most important one is that we’re going to be doing engineering that connects with molecular-level science in chemistry and physics and biology. The flip side of that implies what we’re not going to be doing. We’re not going to be building 747s or bridges and dams. We’re not going to have civil engineering or aerospace engineering.”

That explanation, he insists, is not a definition of the field, a narrow view he resists in favor of considering its expansive potential. “This is not distinctly different from what many people would call nanoscale engineering or nanotechnology,” Tirrell adds, but “we’re not going to be talking about, in the early stages, what the discipline is as much as we are what the disciplines can do together.”

Chicago’s molecular engineers will work together in the 265,000-square-foot, $215 million William Eckhardt Research Center, under construction at 57th Street and Ellis Avenue. The facility is slated to open in 2015. For now, Tirrell works on his own construction project from an administrative office on the second floor of Jones Laboratory.

The institute offered its first undergraduate course in fall 2014, as part of a newly available minor in molecular engineering. The institute will continuously develop new courses and plans to propose a full bachelor’s degree program in the 2014–2015 academic year. Tirrell hopes the College program will “cover some of the differences between engineering and science—design, even economic analysis,” he says. “There are all kinds of failed businesses that result from people not really recognizing the difference between a slick technical idea and a good business idea. And engineers are supposed to have a little more insight into that.”

Calling engineering “the path from science to society,” Tirrell considers the institute’s potential to navigate that path essential to its success. Through agreements with existing businesses or through University start-ups, putting the theoretical into practice will be one of the institute’s key responsibilities.

Tirrell devotes much of his time to visiting companies, establishing relationships that could be mutually beneficial as the institute’s research agenda develops. A history of real-world success would be another valuable line on the CVs of potential professors. “Especially since we’re building an engineering program, we want people that are accustomed to working with organizations that get things done,” Tirrell says. “So industry, hospitals, government in some cases. To really put what happens in the labs here into practice in the world.”

Building a big tent

The institute’s independence was an attraction for Tirrell, who welcomed the rare and invigorating opportunity to build an academic unit, to create a new identity in an established research culture. The novelty is a selling point to others as well, but he believes researchers have an additional incentive to be interested: “Being able to help create an engineering department that sheds a lot of traditional baggage and aims really at optimizing the possibilities to tackle big societal problems is what attracts people.” By “baggage” he means any specific category of engineering—electrical, mechanical—that restricts the work done under the institute’s roof.

He also means the freedom that comes from tapping into the collaborative potential that the University encourages—Tirrell often walks across the street to meet with colleagues at the medical school or the Gordon Center for Integrative Science—while developing an independent agenda. “The IME will have a kind of license to do things together the way a research institute does and a license to acquire faculty the way an academic unit does,” Tirrell says. “That doesn’t exist elsewhere as far as I know.”

With the ability to both collaborate and stand apart, the institute contributes to molecular-level research in the basic sciences while advancing the specific role of engineering—and vice versa. “It stretches people at both ends,” says Rosenbaum. Despite the increasing similarities between scientists and engineers, he notes that each still has a “different sensibility” that informs and pushes the other’s research.

Many researchers echo Zimmer’s description of disciplines that have blurred to an almost indistinguishable point. “I don’t dispute that,” Tirrell says, but he believes there’s still an important philosophical distinction. “Science discovers the world as it is; engineering creates the world that never was,” he adds, paraphrasing Caltech aerospace engineer Theodore von Kármán. “My distillation of that is, ‘Science is about why, and engineering is about why not?’” He chuckles. “These are things that deans make up when they’re taking a shower.”

At this point, Tirrell doesn’t concern himself much with distinctions. He figures he’ll retire in 15 years or so. Maybe then, he says, he’ll write a book that draws disciplinary boundaries around molecular engineering, but he believes the institute should be free of imposed constraints. In the chemical-engineering departments where Tirrell worked, questions often arose about whether a certain topic belonged under their umbrella. “We’re never going to have that discussion here.”

He wants the biggest tent molecular engineering can build. “What we’re going to end up with is not going to be some kind of smaller-scale homogeneous mimic of a traditional engineering school. We’re not going to have departments, we’re not going to divide ourselves up; we’re going to emphasize coming together to solve big problems.”

Adapted from a story originally published in the May/June 2012 issue of The University of Chicago Magazine.