Institute for Molecular Engineering doubles size of faculty with innovative researchers

The University of Chicago’s Institute for Molecular Engineering is adding four prominent senior faculty members who develop advanced technologies that address some of society’s most challenging questions, including cancer bioengineering, water resources, quantum computing and quantum materials, and regenerative medicine.

The four scholars will join a preeminent group that includes pioneers in the molecular design of materials and new kinds of electronic circuitry. Two of the new faculty members also will hold joint appointments at Argonne National Laboratory, a global leader in computing and materials research and a partner of the Institute for Molecular Engineering. University officials say the addition of so many leaders in the field helps establish the institute as a premier destination for scholars working at the intersection of molecular science and technology.


The new faculty members have helped define their fields of inquiry and between them boast a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Award,” election to the National Academy of Engineering, and Science magazine’s 2010 Breakthrough of the Year.

Giulia Galli, who creates computational methods to design new materials for more efficient energy generation and to simulate the behavior of water, will join the UChicago faculty as of Nov. 1, 2014. Andrew Cleland, who builds nanoscale electronic and mechanical devices that operate at the quantum limit, will join the faculty effective July 1, 2014. Galli and Cleland both also will serve as senior scientists at Argonne.

Also joining the faculty July 1, 2014 are Melody Swartz and Jeffrey Hubbell, both of the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland. Swartz, a 2012 MacArthur Fellow, is developing ways to thwart the trickery that cancer cells use to sneak past the immune system. Hubbell, a member of the National Academy of Engineering, has spun off three startup companies from his laboratory research, including one devoted to wound-healing and bone-repair products.

Founded in 2011, the Institute for Molecular Engineering is rapidly assembling a group of scientific innovators who focus on designing new technology from the molecular level up, with potentially far-reaching public benefits.

“Giulia, Andrew, Melody and Jeff are all creative leaders in their respective fields,” said Matthew Tirrell, the Pritzker Director of UChicago’s Institute for Molecular Engineering. “They join a stellar team of colleagues who have already joined the IME faculty. Together we are developing ambitious programs in several thematic areas.

“One area is organic and biomaterials, which could potentially lead to the design of new types of electronic and biomedical devices. Another is semiconductor and quantum devices, which will drive the technology of future, improved computer processing capabilities. In several other areas—immune-engineering and cancer, molecular engineering of water resources, and energy storage and harvesting, to name some initial targets, IME is addressing a variety of pressing societal problems.”

The institute expects to grow to a total of at least 25 faculty members within five to seven years. Once at full strength, the faculty collectively will work with more than 200 PhD students, who will be trained in a new approach to engineering research and education, one that emphasizes the development of solutions to the technological problems of society based on molecular-level science.

The William Eckhardt Research Center, now under construction, will house UChicago’s molecular engineers, who will share the building with world-leading cosmologists and astrophysicists.

The newly announced Chicago Innovation Exchange on 53rd Street also will include the institute among its tenants. The CIE will help scholars and entrepreneurs translate their ideas and new technologies into startup businesses and products.

The institute’s developing plans for the exchange include establishing a corporate partnership program as part of its Water Research Initiative, which launched last June in collaboration with researchers at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and Argonne. The initiative will apply the latest discoveries in nanotechnology to create new materials and processes for making clean, fresh drinking water more plentiful and less expensive by 2020, as well as technologies for using water more effectively in industry and agriculture.

The institute also has begun accepting student applications for the University’s first engineering PhD. The first directly admitted class will enroll in the 2014 autumn quarter and will comprise students of diverse academic backgrounds in the physical, biological and computational sciences and engineering.

Giulia Galli

Galli is a professor of chemistry and physics at the University of California, Davis. Until recently she chaired the Extreme Physics and Chemistry of Carbon Directorate of the Deep Carbon Observatory, a 10-year global effort funded by the Sloan foundation, devoted to discovering the quantity, movements, origins and forms of Earth’s deep carbon. Elemental carbon plays a fundamental role in life processes, energy supply and climate change. She remains involved in the project as one of the observatory’s lead researchers and as a member of its scientific advisory board.

Galli uses theoretical and computational methods to predict the properties of complex materials, encompassing solids, liquids and nanostructures. “We work in close collaboration with experimentalists to invent strategies to interpret complex measurements, as well as to discover new materials with targeted properties. For example, energy-related applications,” Galli said.

Her research in developing computational procedures for simulating water behavior also is relevant to the institute’s water initiative. The methods and techniques she and her associates have developed over the years to predict the properties of liquids at the molecular level may now help lead to major advances in engineering approaches to improved use of water resources.

A fellow of the American Physical Society, Galli has received many honors, including the U.S. Department of Energy’s Award of Excellence and the Lawrence Livermore Science and Technology Award. Her move to Chicago will bring her much closer to one of her many research sponsors, the Argonne Leadership Computing Facility.

She and her associates make significant use of the facility’s computers through a sizable award of computer time through the Department of Energy’s INCITE (Innovative and Novel Computation Impact on Theory and Experiment) program over the last several years.

“We have greatly benefited from the help and collaboration of the technical staff at the Advanced Leadership Computing Facility. I’m looking forward to strengthening our collaboration with ALCF teams,” Galli said.

Galli graduated summa cum laude, in physics, from the University of Modena, Italy, in 1982. She then attended the International School for Advanced Studies in Trieste, Italy, receiving a master’s degree in 1984 and a doctorate in 1986, both in physics. Postdoctoral fellowships followed for Galli at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and at the IBM Research Division in Zurich, Switzerland.

Galli continued her career at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, Switzerland, and at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, where she led the Quantum Simulations Group.

Andrew Cleland

Cleland is a professor of physics at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and associate director of the California Nanosystems Institute at UCSB. Formerly he served as associate director of the Center for Nanoscale Innovation for Defense at UCSB.

Cleland specializes in quantum computing, quantum communication and quantum sensors, all of which depend upon harnessing the peculiar properties of quantum mechanics—the physics that dominates the atomic world and has recently been shown to apply to macroscopic mechanical objects as well as electrical circuits.

“These areas of research were unheard of 20 years ago, but they have simply exploded over the past decade in both demonstrated capabilities and emerging opportunities,” Cleland said.

Cleland led the team that built the first quantum machine — a human-made gadget with motion that can only be described with the laws of quantum mechanics. The feat that earned Cleland's team “Breakthrough of the Year 2010” honors from Science magazine. The same work was named a top ten discovery of 2010 by Physics World, which also listed a related project of Cleland’s as a top ten discovery of 2011.

Cleland has been developing a quantum computer based on superconducting quantum circuits. Such a computer would be able to process many complete sets of input data at the same time, far exceeding the parallel processing capabilities of the classic computers now in use.

His quantum communication efforts are aimed at using quantum mechanical principles to build a device enabling quantum-secure communication with light. Such a system would be unbreakable, even by a quantum computer. A quantum memory system for secure long-term data storage is a likely spinoff of Cleland’s quantum communications work.

“This combination of secure communication and secure—quantum-encrypted—information storage could, in the very long term, solve many of the problems we now face with our very public and very insecure Internet technology,” Cleland said.

Cleland’s third area of research—quantum sensing—provides a means to detect and quantify very weak forces and fields. These include magnetic signals from the core of a single atomic nucleus, which forms the basis of magnetic resonance imaging.

Among Cleland’s collaborators in quantum communication and quantum sensing is David Awschalom, formerly of UCSB and the institute’s newly arrived Liew Family Professor in Spintronics and Quantum Information.

Cleland is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and of the American Physical Society. He received his bachelor’s degree in engineering physics in 1983, and his PhD in physics in 1991, both from the University of California, Berkeley. He then conducted research at the Centre d’Etudes-Orme des Merisiers in Saclay, France, and later at the California Institute of Technology, before joining the UCSB faculty.

Melody Swartz

Swartz holds joint appointments as a professor of bioengineering and cancer research at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lusanne (EPFL), and director of its Institute of Bioengineering. She studies how fluids move through tissue and specifically how fluid drains to the lymph system, and how fluidic processes relate to cancer.

“The new research question that I’ve been focusing on lately is how lymphatic vessels, and their transport functions, contribute to adaptive immunity,” Swartz said. Biomedical scientists currently regard the fluid-drainage function of the lymphatic system as mostly important for maintaining tissue fluid balance. The cell transport functions, which regulate immunity, are considered separately.

“We are trying to build a new picture of the lymphatic function—namely, that not only are fluid and cell transport functions of the lymphatic vessels strongly coupled, but that the fluid transport functions are very important in regulating immune responses,” Swartz said.

Swartz’s team also is trying to target lymphatic vessels for improved cancer immunotherapy because this is one aspect of the tumor microenvironment that seems to contribute to therapeutic failure.

Swartz earned her bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from Johns Hopkins University in 1991. As a Watson Foundation Fellow she then conducted a year of independent research in Micronesia on the “use and societal impact of Western technologies in undeveloped nations.”

Swartz next joined the anesthesiology department at the Northwestern University School of Medicine as a research assistant. She completed her PhD in chemical engineering in 1998 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, serving next as a postdoctoral fellow in the Pulmonary Division of Brigham & Women’s Hospital of the Harvard Medical School and of MIT’s department of mechanical engineering.

Swartz later held joint faculty appointments in chemical & biological engineering and biomedical engineering at Northwestern. She joined the EPFL faculty in 2003 while maintaining her Northwestern ties first as an adjunct assistant professor, then as a visiting scientist, in biomedical engineering.

Swartz has received many honors. In addition to the MacArthur Fellowship, which recognizes creativity in all endeavors, she has been awarded a Career Award from the National Science Foundation, an Arnold and Mabel Beckman Young Investigator Award, and the Wenner Prize—Switzerland’s largest prize for cancer research.

Additional honors include being named one of Popular Science Magazine’s Brilliant 10 in 2006. Swartz also is an elected fellow of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering, and a two-time recipient of prestigious $3 million single-investigator grants from the European Research Foundation.

Jeffrey Hubbell

Hubbell is the Merck-Serono Chair in Drug Delivery and acting dean of the School of Life Sciences at EPFL. He is a professor in EPFL’s Institute of Bioengineering as well as its Institute of Chemical Sciences and Engineering. Hubbell develops biomaterials of many sorts, especially for regenerative medicine and for delivery of various therapeutic agents.

More recently he has been designing materials to assemble in such a way that they can stimulate the immune systems to fight infection or malignancy, or turn off some aspects of the immune system to address auto-immune diseases such as type-1 diabetes. Hubbell has coined the term “immuno-modulatory materials” to describe this newly emerging field of research. Along with his associates, he holds 77 patents.

An entrepreneurial materials scientist, Hubbell has founded three companies based on his research.

One company, Kuros Biosurgery, in Zurich, is “developing growth factor engineering and biomaterials technology for surgical sealants and tissue repair agents,” Hubbell said. That work is based on research from his academic laboratory on growth factor variants that bind to biomaterials such as fibrin, a protein involved in blood clotting, as well as on synthetic hydrogel technology.

Anokion, in Lausanne, is developing immunological tolerance technology for preventing immunity to protein drugs that would otherwise elicit an immune response, also based on research from Hubbell’s academic laboratory. A good example is in hemophilia A. Approximately one-third of children who are treated with the protein drug to correct this genetic disease develop an inhibiting immunological recognition to the protein, which makes their lives very difficult. “Anokion is working on ways to induce tolerance to such proteins to prevent their immunological recognition,” Hubbell said.

Focal, Inc., of Lexington, Mass., was acquired by Genzyme Biosurgery in 2001.

Hubbell received his bacehlor’s degree from Kansas State University in 1982, and his PhD from Rice University in 1986, both in chemical engineering. He started his academic career as a member of the chemical engineering faculty at the University of Texas, then at the California Institute of Technology.

Hubbell next moved to Switzerland, where he initially served as a professor of biomedical engineering and director of the Institute for Biomedical Engineering at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and the University of Zurich. He moved to EPFL in 2003 to serve as founding director of the Institute of Bioengineering.

In addition to his membership in the National Academy of Engineering, Hubbell is the former president of the Society for Biomaterials. Hubbell also is an elected fellow of Biomaterials Science and Engineering, of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and of the American Institute of Medical and Biological Engineering.

Earlier in his career, Hubbell received the W.J. Kolff Award for Outstanding Research from the American Society of Artificial Internal Organs, the Outstanding Dow Young Faculty Award from the American Society of Engineering Education, and the National Science Foundation’s Presidential Young Investigator Award.