Matthew Tirrell has been appointed to a second five-year term as Pritzker Director and dean of the faculty of the Institute for Molecular Engineering, President Robert J. Zimmer and Provost Eric Isaacs announced. Tirrell’s new term begins July 1.
The institute was created in 2011 in partnership with Argonne National Laboratory, where Tirrell also serves as deputy laboratory director for science. The institute’s work explores innovative technologies through design and manipulation at a molecular scale, with potential impact on major societal issues.
Since becoming IME’s founding director in 2011, Tirrell has led the institute on a course of rapid growth in the emerging discipline of molecular engineering. The program has already attracted a core of 15 faculty members—a number that will continue to grow, with a thriving graduate program and a new undergraduate major. The institute’s Pritzker Nanofabrication Facility, a sophisticated resource for scientists and engineers at UChicago and beyond, recently opened in the new William Eckhardt Research Center.
“In a remarkably brief period of time, the Institute for Molecular Engineering has become a successful and influential center for engineering research and education, and an innovative partner for scientists across the University and at affiliated laboratories,” Zimmer said. “Matt has demonstrated strong leadership and vision, and succeeded in defining what molecular engineering could become at the University of Chicago. We are deeply grateful for his intellectual contributions and his generosity as a colleague, and we look forward to his continued success.”
Tirrell said he hopes to deepen and consolidate IME’s strengths in the areas of research that institute scientists have identified as their priorities: quantum materials, immuno-engineering, polymer materials, water resources and energy storage.
“Our objective is to create a new frontier of engineering research and education,” Tirrell said. “It has been tremendously rewarding to assemble this team and see them develop an approach to innovation and leadership that is novel and yet solidly within the great scholarly traditions of the University of Chicago. We are driving convergence among the sciences and different traditional engineering disciplines.”
Institute’s development enters next phase
Ten faculty members are already in residence at IME and another five will arrive on campus over the next year. In this initial stage of development, the institute will grow to at least 25 faculty members, who will lead teams that will likely involve a total of 350 to 400 researchers.
Another of Tirrell’s goals is to build upon the institute’s Argonne connections to more thoroughly integrate their respective research agendas. But one of the institute’s most profound activities may be developing the undergraduate major in molecular engineering, he said.
“We have 30 students who are majoring in molecular engineering at the University of Chicago, and we will graduate them in the spring of 2018,” Tirrell said. “We have a curriculum in place for those students, but we will continually take stock and assess whether we’re training them in the best way that we can. The more we think about it, the more we see ways that we can deliver a powerful undergraduate education in engineering—one not narrowly based in the traditional engineering disciplines.”
At UChicago, Tirrell and his colleagues do not subdivide their discipline into chemical or mechanical or electrical engineering. They prefer instead to teach principles such as fluid mechanics, which can be applied to chemical problems or environmental problems or bio-engineering problems, and not just to problems relevant to a single engineering discipline.
“That will empower students to think about engineering more broadly,” Tirrell said. “We’re not going to train people how to design airplanes or large-scale systems. We’re going to focus on applied science and technology derived from the chemical, mechanical, biological and electrical properties of materials and devices at the molecular scale.”