UChicago and MBL announce recipients of Lillie Awards for Collaborative Research

The University of Chicago and the Marine Biological Laboratory have announced the 2015 recipients of the Frank R. Lillie Research Innovation Awards.

The grant program honors Frank R. Lillie, the early 20th-century embryologist who served as the MBL’s second director and as chair of UChicago’s Department of Zoology. Awards are open to collaborators from the MBL and the University or Argonne National Laboratory.


The grants bring together interdisciplinary teams of scientists for a project that represents a new collaborative area of inquiry for the investigators. The goal is to stimulate “blue sky” thinking that has the potential to lead to significant external funding with a consortium of collaborators working together on a big problem.

One Lillie Award was given to A. Murat Eren, MBL assistant research scientist, and Eugene B. Chang, a professor of medicine at UChicago. They will build a high-performance, open-source software platform to study metagenomics, a powerful tool that is used to analyze the genetic material of microbial communities extracted directly from the environment. Once built, the researchers plan to use the software to investigate the intricate role of microbial communities in human digestive diseases.

Another grant was awarded to Jianwu Tang, an MBL associate scientist, and Yuki Hamada, an associate biophysical remote sensing scientist at Argonne. They will develop a novel approach to measure plant photosynthesis and other ecosystem functions that can be used to quantify the impacts of environmental change on ecosystems and agricultural systems.

“The Lillie Awards are important to support and stimulate new collaborations between the MBL and the University of Chicago,” said Huntington Willard, president and director of the MBL. “The two projects that have been awarded have great potential for impacting both the science and its implications for the world we live in. This program is even more far-reaching, since it catalyzes interactions between our campuses at many different levels, which will have numerous payoffs down the line.”

Complex data yields new insights

Eren, a computer scientist by training, builds novel algorithms to make sense of complex datasets. As part of the MBL’s Josephine Bay Paul Center for Comparative Molecular Biology and Evolution, he recently developed oligotyping, a computational method that can help microbial ecologists investigate closely related bacterial groups with unprecedented sensitivity. At UChicago, Chang leads a research program that aims to elucidate the role of microbial communities in the development and progression of human digestive diseases.

Eren and Chang’s project will contribute to the fields of microbiology and microbial ecology by tackling processing and visualization challenges that currently prevent researchers from having full control of their metagenomic data. Their software platform has the potential to transform how scientists interpret metagenomic data, which may have tremendous long-term implications on our understanding of the microbial world.

Understanding the response of natural ecosystems, agriculture and urban ecosystems to the changing environment is critically important to guide sustainable development and protect the human environment. However, the ability to measure complex ecosystem functions—such as photosynthesis, respiration, water uptake and nutrient cycling—and understand their processes on an ecosystem scale is limited.

Tang and Hamada’s project will address these challenges by building on Tang’s work in the MBL’s Ecosystems Center and developing a novel system to automatically measure plant fluorescence and its link to photosynthesis. This system will be integrated with Hamada’s work collecting ecosystem function data using Argonne’s EcoSpec tower-based hyperspectral remote sensing system, which explores the power of optical information to predict the dynamics of ecosystem functions. The team will further refine their approach by adding pixel-based fluorescence data and tapping the skills of MBL associate scientist Tomomi Tani, who has been working on instrument development of fluorescent imaging for studying sub-cellular dynamics in living cells. Tang and Hamada expect their project to have a broad impact on the field in ecology, environmental science, agricultural science, remote sensing and global change research.

The Lillie Awards will support up to two years of pilot research for a total of $125,000 per award. Recipients will be able to develop their projects over a period including two or three successive summers, working in residence as a team at the MBL, in addition to continued progress on the project during the traditional academic years in between MBL visits.