Institute for Molecular Engineering names three esteemed researchers to faculty

The University of Chicago’s Institute for Molecular Engineering is making its first set of new faculty appointments, bringing in world-leading research programs at the interfaces between molecular-level science and powerful new technologies.

The new faculty members, who will have joint appointments at Argonne National Laboratory, are physicist-engineer David Awschalom of the University of California, Santa Barbara; and chemical engineers Juan de Pablo and Paul Nealey, both of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. de Pablo and Nealey’s appointments will begin Sept. 1, while Awschalom will join the institute in early 2013.

They will join Matt Tirrell, the founding Pritzker Director of the institute, a preeminent researcher in materials science and chemical engineering who joined the University in 2011. Each of the new faculty members has led major research centers, gained patents for new technology and has experience in corporate partnerships. The group that Tirrell is building will provide senior faculty leadership for the institute’s research mission of exploring innovative technologies in nanoscale manipulation and design at a molecular scale, with the potential for societal impact in areas such as health care, computing, energy and the environment.

“Our aspirations for the Institute for Molecular Engineering were to attract outstanding researchers who could not only define new fields of inquiry, but would introduce a different scientific sensibility to the University,” said Provost Thomas Rosenbaum, the John T. Wilson Distinguished Service Professor in Physics. “It is a testament to Matt Tirrell’s vision that these three engineering leaders will quickly establish the institute as a major player in polymer-based materials and the manipulation of quantum information.”

In recognition of their distinguished records, all three members of the institute’s founding faculty will hold named professorships. Awschalom and de Pablo will be Liew Family Professors in Molecular Engineering, while Nealey will be the Brady W. Dougan Professor in Molecular Engineering.

“The Institute for Molecular Engineering is attracting some of the world’s finest minds to Chicago,” said Argonne Director Eric D. Isaacs. “This new institute, with its focus on interdisciplinary research at the molecular level, promises to play an increasingly important role in expanding Illinois’ innovation ecosystem.”

Tirrell noted that the three appointees maintain research partnerships with industry. Collectively they pursue joint projects with Hewlett Packard, IBM, Intel, Hitachi and several others.

All three have led academic initiatives with relevance to molecular engineering. Awschalom directs the California Nanosystems Institute at UC Santa Barbara. de Pablo directs the Materials Research Science and Engineering Center at Wisconsin, while Nealey is the founding director of the Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center at Wisconsin.

This group will provide a core of leaders as the Institute for Molecular Engineering continues to grow. The institute’s faculty will grow to 24 over the next decade. Tirrell expects to announce additional appointments later this year.


Awschalom, a professor of physics and electrical and computer engineering at UC Santa Barbara, is one of the world’s top research scientists in spintronics and quantum information engineering.

David Awschalom

David Awschalom

He holds several patents, including one in quantum computing, an experimental computer technology that would dwarf the capabilities of modern digital computers. His expertise also encompasses spintronics, which involves understanding and manipulating the spin of electrons for advanced computing, medical imaging, encryption and other technologies.

In digital computers, bits of information exist in one of only two states: zero or one. In the subatomic world of quantum mechanics, objects can exist simultaneously in many states, meaning that “qubits” of information could exist in multiple states at once within a quantum computer.

“Quantum mechanics allows the possibility of exploiting a whole range of states simultaneously for computational tasks,” Tirrell said. “But it’s not only computing. Isolating quantum states and looking at their responses to their environment has a huge range of possibilities in chemistry, biology and communications, including advanced imaging technologies.”

Among his numerous honors, Awschalom is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Sciences, and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the American Physical Society. His other awards include the American Physical Society’s Oliver Buckley Prize, the European Physical Society’s Europhysics Prize, the AAAS Newcomb Cleveland Prize, the Materials Research Society’s Turnbull Award, and, from the International Union of Pure and Applied Research, the International Magnetism Prize and the Néel Medal.

Awschalom said the launch of the Institute for Molecular Engineering offers an unparalleled opportunity to transform the field.

“This is a truly unique opportunity at Chicago,” Awschalom said, “not only to grow my own research activities, but also to help build a new institute and program in quantum science and technology. It’s exciting to see the University of Chicago develop an approach to engineering science that’s fundamentally different, and to position it amongst the leading research institutes in the world.”

“One of the things that’s impressive to me personally is that Matt Tirrell is leading this effort,” Awschalom added. “Matt’s an extraordinary scientist and an administrator with an impressive track record. He operates with a high level of integrity and a wide-reaching vision that’s inspirational, and I don’t say that lightly.”

Awschalom received his bachelor’s degree in physics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. After earning his doctorate in experimental physics from Cornell University he served as a research staff member and manager of the Nonequilibrium Physics Department at the IBM Watson Research Center in New York. He joined the physics faculty at UC Santa Barbara in 1991, then obtained an additional appointment as a professor of electrical and computer engineering in 2001.

Juan de Pablo                

Much of de Pablo’s work entails conducting supercomputer simulations to understand and design new materials from scratch and to find applications for them.

Juan de Pablo

Juan de Pablo

“Juan de Pablo is certainly one of the leading individuals in simulations of polymeric materials,” Tirrell said. Polymers are substances that consist of long, flexible chains of identical molecules. Naturally occurring polymers are a common element of living cells, while synthetic polymers are prevalent in many commercial products.

In other work, Tirrell said, “de Pablo has been a leader in developing computational simulations of molecular and large-scale phenomena.” This includes DNA dynamics — how DNA molecules arrange and organize themselves and interact with other DNA molecules. He also studies protein aggregation and its poorly understood relationship to various diseases, including type II diabetes and neurodegenerative disorders.

de Pablo joined the Wisconsin faculty in 1992 and serves as the Howard Curler Distinguished Professor and Hilldale Professor of Chemical Engineering. He holds over 15 patents on multiple technologies, including nine jointly with Nealey and others, and is the author or co-author of approximately 350 publications.

The International Technology Roadmap for Semiconductors has identified one of de Pablo and Nealey’s collaborative inventions for directed self-assembly as a technology critical to the semiconductor industry’s miniaturization goals. Directed self-assembly provides engineers a means of coaxing organic materials to form patterns that direct the deposition of metals on integrated circuits.

A food manufacturer has licensed another of de Pablo’s patents for stabilizing proteins in bacteria or cells for long periods of time without refrigeration, but the patent also has potential pharmaceutical and medical applications.

Like Awschalom and Nealey, de Pablo listed multiple reasons that excited him about coming to Chicago. “One of them is the idea of starting a distinctive new engineering program at a university that has the history and the reputation of the University of Chicago,” de Pablo said.

Argonne offered yet another attraction.

“Argonne has tremendous, world-renowned computational scientists and a great staff generally in all of the sciences,” he said. “Collaborating with this group of people is going to add value and a new dimension to our research.”

A fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and of the American Physical Society, de Pablo also has received the 2011 Charles Stine Award from the American Institute of Chemical Engineers.

de Pablo earned a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México in 1985. After completing his doctorate in chemical engineering from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1990, he conducted postdoctoral research at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, Switzerland.

Paul Nealey

Nealey joined the Wisconsin faculty in 1995 and serves as the Shoemaker Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering.

Paul Nealey

Paul Nealey

“Paul Nealey is a pioneer of directed self-assembly, which is becoming very important in microelectronics processing to create patterns for integrated circuits,” Tirrell said. “He is one of the world’s leading experts on patterning organic materials, literally creating physical patterns of structure and composition in the materials at the nanometer length scale, where the patterns affect the function of the materials.”    

Many of Nealey’s collaborative projects with de Pablo have focused on block copolymer films, which spontaneously self-assemble to form structures with dimensions that range from three to 50 nanometers (one nanometer is the width of 10 hydrogen atoms sitting side-by-side).

Nealey’s experimental and de Pablo’s computational teamwork extends even to jointly advised doctoral students. Their approach has become so powerfully productive that other institutions seek to replicate their formula for success with their own research teams.

Nealey’s interest in tissue engineering of corneal prosthetic devices, pursued in collaboration with a veterinary ophthalmologist, demonstrates the versatility of his expertise in fabricating nanostructured surfaces.

The University of Chicago’s deep commitment to create a new approach in molecular engineering helped convince Nealey to accept the appointment, he said.

“The level of enthusiasm on the part of everyone I met at the University of Chicago was infectious,” Nealey said. “I don’t know how to describe it other than the level of enthusiasm was overwhelming, from the very highest members of the administration to the faculty whom I met, and that’s rare.

“To have biologists, physicists and chemists talking with such enthusiasm, really embracing this idea of molecular engineering was overwhelming. It was a major factor in my decision to accept the offer.”

Nealey holds 14 patents and is the author of more than 180 publications. His many honors include fellowship in the American Physical Society, the 2010 Nanoscale Science and Engineering Forum Award from the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, and a 2009 Inventor Recognition Award from Semiconductor Research Corporation.

Nealey received his bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering, magna cum laude, from Rice University in 1985. He then spent three years working as an engineer for Solvay et Compagnie in Brussels, Belgium. Nealey completed his doctorate in chemical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1994, then conducted postdoctoral research at Harvard University.



Matthew Tirrell, the founding Pritzker Director of the Institute for Molecular Engineering, discusses his vision for IME (2011)


Lattice defects

This image depicts an aspect of molecular engineering research by David Awschalom, one of three new faculty members appointed to the University of Chicago Institute for Molecular Engineering. The graphic highlights an area of subatomic imperfections (lower center) of the type that could be exploited in the field of semiconductor spintronics, one of Awschalom's research specialties.

Courtesy of David Awschalom

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