Celebrating 125 years of transformative research from UChicago and affiliated laboratories

An increasingly vital part of the University of Chicago’s legacy of pushing forward the boundaries of scientific understanding is the University’s affiliation with internationally renowned centers of research: Argonne National Laboratory, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and, most recently, the Marine Biological Laboratory.

Institutional leaders, researchers and elected officials came together recently at the new William Eckhardt Research Center to celebrate the past, present and future of these fruitful partnerships in the context of the University’s 125th anniversary. The event showcased the impact of the partnerships on advancing research, training the next generation of scientists, enabling successful technologies and creating a nexus of intellectual talent in or connected to the Chicago region.

“At every level, the University of Chicago continues to be an economic, intellectual and cultural resource that the city draws on,” said Mayor Rahm Emanuel. “The city immensely benefits from the depth of what goes on at these institutions, to continue to be a world-class city with world-class capacity.”

The institutions’ histories have shown their combined power to change fields of study. Collaborations between the University and Fermilab have led to groundbreaking research in high-energy physics, while the University’s affiliation with Argonne is a source of advances in fields such as computation, materials science and molecular engineering. The relatively new MBL affiliation has similar potential to foster original collaborations in marine biology.

“The strength, and in some sense the challenge and the art form, is the ability to take a university and laboratories that have different capabilities, different strengths and sometimes different ways of doing research, and put them all together to do extraordinary work that none of them could do alone,” said President Robert J. Zimmer.

A legacy of discovery and collaboration

The U.S. government’s establishment of Argonne in 1946 grew out of the efforts of Enrico Fermi and other UChicago scientists, who oversaw the first controlled nuclear reaction and then sought to explore peaceful applications of this powerful energy source. UChicago researchers led and participated in landmark high-energy physics experiments at Fermilab from its founding in 1967. Though the official affiliation with Marine Biological Laboratory was established in 2013, UChicago biologists such as Charles O. Whitman were instrumental in the founding of that institution in 1888.

Those relationships have put UChicago in the vanguard of some of the last century’s greatest scientific achievements: the identification of the top quark and the Higgs boson, the design of new technologies for nuclear power and electric vehicles, and the use of powerful imaging technology to reveal the inner workings of DNA and other cellular machinery. One key to such discoveries is the ability of the laboratories and the University to bring together top researchers of many disciplines from around the nation and the world.

“These labs are able to convene powerful groups of researchers to address current scientific and engineering challenges that would be very difficult anywhere else,” said Provost Eric Isaacs. “Not only do they convene scientists, engineers, faculty and staff, but they are able to bring together these researchers with innovators from industry…to address major technological problems.”

New connections, new answers

Several new UChicago-laboratory partnerships prepare these institutions to tackle new challenges over the next 125 years. Joint initiatives such as the Institute for Molecular Engineering and the South Pole Telescope, as well as international collaborations led by the University and labs, explore the frontiers of renewable energy, climate change, neutrino physics and more.

Scientists from each of the four institutions explained the global impact of these research efforts. Marcela Carena, director of international relations and head of the theoretical physics department at Fermilab, and professor in physics at UChicago, presented experiments to find dark matter and study the early conditions of the universe. Leah Guzowski, director of strategy and research programs and energy policy scientist at Argonne, and fellow at the Computation Institute, described collaborative efforts to increase understanding of cities and urbanization.

Julie Huber, associate scientist and associate director of the Josephine Bay Paul Center at MBL, discussed bringing back new forms of microbial life from 7,000 feet below the ocean surface that may hold the key to new antibiotics, biofuels or even the discovery of life on other planets. Melody Swartz, the William B. Ogden Professor at the Institute for Molecular Engineering, spoke about the potential of immunotherapy to enlist the human body’s own immune system in the fight against cancer.

Remaining open to new, creative collaborations is one of the best ways to solve the most challenging emerging problems in science, said Huntington Willard, president and director of the MBL, in a panel that featured all three laboratory directors.

“The University of Chicago provides…an opportunity to bring in a group of colleagues that gives us the capacity for thinking much more strategically about our future, what kinds of questions and problems we want to tackle together,” Willard said.