Above: The Eckhardt Center reflects Chicago’s engineering vision. The building will provide new facilities for many programs in the physical sciences. (Rendering courtesy HOK/JCDA/AJSNY) Below: Matthew Tirrell, a chemical engineer by training, studies micelles (illustration), assemblies of lipid molecules that have potential biological applications—the kind of cross-disciplinary work he intends to make the hallmark of the University’s Institute for Molecular Engineering, where he is the founding Pritzker director. (Illustration courtesy Matthew Tirrell; Photography by Lloyd Degrane)

From the ground up

With the new Institute for Molecular Engineering, the University 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, 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.”

He wants the Institute for Molecular Engineering to operate with similar spontaneity and utility. Faculty members will be encouraged—expected, really—to organize themselves into problem-solving teams. As of mid-April Tirrell was the institute’s only faculty member, devoting most of his time to recruiting more. As many as five professors could be named by the fall, and over the next several years the faculty will grow to about 25.

Tirrell, who arrived at Chicago in July 2011, hopes to attract 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 Provost Thomas F. Rosenbaum, attracting talent from across disciplines.

Tirrell’s group of four postdoctoral researchers at Chicago, along with a handful of graduate students, illustrates the range he values. “Chemists, physicists, engineers, and biologists, all in a relatively small group,” says Matthew Kade, one of the postdocs who came with Tirrell from Berkeley. “The idea of molecular engineering is, it’s all of these different fields coming together to do the whole bottom-up solving of problems. If you look at the diversity of Matt’s group, he’s kind of been doing that for a long time.”

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.

In Tirrell’s vision for the institute, scientists will likewise follow their interests wherever they lead. Molecular engineers doing biological research, for example, will not focus on health care to the exclusion of other potential uses for their work. 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.”


The combination of the University of Chicago and engineering research is unusual in itself. Contrary to local myth, though, University administrators have not dismissed the field in the past, they’ve just failed in their attempts to incorporate it into the curriculum.

William Rainey Harper’s Official Bulletin No. 1, issued in January 1891—before his acceptance of the University’s presidency had been made public—proposed a graduate school of engineering in the same breath as law and medicine. In Harper’s University (University of Chicago Press, 1966), Richard J. Storr wrote that, the winter before the University opened, Frederick T. Gates told John D. Rockefeller that “we can do all our work in applied sciences through this school. It will be the greatest thing of the kind in the world.”

Civil engineer Elmer L. Corthell, a trustee of the new University, visited six European universities in 1891 to study their engineering programs as potential models. But Harper never had an answer to Corthell’s ultimate question: “Where is the money to come from?” Frustrated in his attempts to create an engineering school, Harper pursued partnerships, including one with the Armour Institute of Technology. “The contemplated end was an equivalent of MIT,” Storr writes, “connected with the University and financed by Armour.” But no agreement could be reached with Philip D. Armour or his heirs.

Decades later Robert Maynard Hutchins also considered opening an engineering school. Robert C. Michaelson, SB’66, AM’73, the former head librarian at Northwestern University’s Seeley G. Mudd Library for Science and Engineering, recounts meetings and correspondence about a proposed grant from 1930s Chicago industrialist and philanthropist Walter P. Murphy. In Tech, the Early Years, an anthology about the history of Northwestern’s Technological Institute, Michaelson writes that Chicago’s dean of faculties E. T. Filbey told Murphy’s intermediary that the University “would be interested if there would be support of research and training in engineering that was as distinctive as work done there in other fields, not just another engineering school.” Filbey promised an enthusiastic commitment to make all the necessary investments to succeed in the field. Eventually, though, Murphy’s money—a $6,735,000 gift announced in March 1939—went to Northwestern, and Chicago’s pursuit of engineering lay dormant. Until now.

Today, University President Robert J. Zimmer says, the traditional distinction between science, as the study of the natural world, and engineering, with its focus on man-made inventions, no longer exists. “The evolution of technology has blurred this boundary,” Zimmer says. “The ability to manipulate and design at the molecular scale opens a huge new set of questions in science and at the same time huge new opportunities.” In the modern scientific environment, he adds, the lack of an engineering program had caused the  University’s research potential to “feel oddly restricted.” In his 2006 inaugural convocation address, the president foreshadowed the importance of engineering in removing that constraint: how, he asked, could the University “participate in and lead the remarkable ongoing transformations in science?” Two faculty committees, convened over the past five years, provided the answer.

Under the direction of chair Steven J. Sibener, the Carl William Eisendrath professor in chemistry and the James Franck Institute, the committees determined that molecular engineering represented fertile territory to “yield the added benefit of increasing creativity and the strength of scientific inquiry.” Noting an “explosion of activity in nanoscience,” the 2009 committee report cited three institutes—the Smalley Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology at Rice University, the California NanoSystems Institute, and the London Centre for Nanotechnology—as models. “The success of these institutes can be clearly linked to two key ingredients: a visionary, world-renowned leader and substantial institutional investment.” Not just a call to action for a new Institute for Molecular Engineering, the report also warned that “inaction in this area of endeavor may well abdicate activity in some of the most promising new directions of physical, biological, and medical research.”


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 a building visible now only in an artist’s rendering. In 2015 faculty and staff will move from temporary space into part of the 265,000-square-foot $215 million William Eckhardt Research Center, under construction on the site of the Research Institutes building at 57th Street and Ellis Avenue. For now, Tirrell works on his own construction project from an administrative office on the second floor of Jones Laboratory.

An undergraduate degree program in molecular engineering, he says, remains two or three years away, although he expects the first group of graduate students to start in fall 2013. In the meantime, with a handful of new professors, Tirrell hopes to offer courses this fall to current College students that “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.

Next to his main priority of faculty recruitment, 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.”


Reporting to the provost, the Institute for Molecular Engineering is the University’s largest new academic program since the Harris School of Public Policy Studies opened in 1988. And although Tirrell estimates that 30 or 40 scientists on campus already do research that could be defined as molecular engineering, the institute’s proposed 25 faculty members will be new hires. Some current Chicago researchers eventually will have a role with the institute, perhaps as fellows, and a partnership with Argonne National Laboratory will offer additional potential for collaboration.

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 will contribute to molecular-level research in the basic sciences while advancing the specific role of engineering—and vice versa. “It will stretch people at both ends,” says Provost Rosenbaum, the John T. Wilson distinguished service professor in physics, the James Franck Institute, and the College. Despite the increasing similarities between scientists and engineers, Rosenbaum 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’s 61 and 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.”