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UChicago to Offer New Undergraduate Minor in Molecular Engineering

The University of Chicago’s Institute for Molecular Engineering will offer its first undergraduate course in the autumn 2014 quarter as part of a newly available minor in molecular engineering. The institute will continuously develop new courses and plans to propose a full bachelor’s degree program in the 2014–2015 academic year.

by Steve Koppes University of Chicago News Office
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With the introduction of an undergraduate program in molecular engineering at the University of Chicago, students will soon have available to them an array of new courses that will focus on the approaches and tools molecular engineers use to develop advanced technologies for solving some of society’s most challenging problems. These advanced technologies will include quantum information processing, as represented by the image above.Illustration by Peter AllenThe first course will be Introduction to Emerging Technologies, with others to come in following quarters. The new courses will focus on the approaches and tools that molecular engineers use to develop advanced technologies for solving some of society’s most challenging problems related to cancer bioengineering, water resources, quantum computing and quantum materials, regenerative medicine and other specialties.

“We are launching a new minor as the latest component of our growing educational program in molecular engineering, and we will expand our undergraduate course offerings soon,” said Matthew Tirrell, the Institute’s Pritzker Director. “We’re really trying to do something that transcends traditional engineering disciplines. You might call it a liberal arts approach to engineering education. We will introduce students to a new way of thinking about technology innovation.”

“The new undergraduate course offerings in molecular engineering mark a pivotal moment in the University’s undergraduate curriculum,” noted John W. Boyer, dean of the College. “The University’s Core Curriculum enjoys a long history of intellectual rigor and inquiry. Now, for the first time, our undergraduates will have the opportunity to build on the skills they gain through the Core with training in innovative molecular engineering,” Boyer said.

The institute has five faculty members in residence, and three more will join them next summer. Already here with Tirrell are David Awschalom and Juan de Pablo, who are both Liew Family Professors in Molecular Engineering; Paul Nealey, the Brady W. Dougan Professor in Molecular Engineering; and Giulia Galli, professor in molecular engineering.

Joining them in July 2014 as professors in molecular engineering will be Andrew Cleland, Jeffrey Hubbell and Melody Swartz. 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 hundreds of graduate and undergraduate students. They will be trained in a new approach to engineering research and education, one that emphasizes the development of solutions to the technological challenges society faces based on molecular-level research.

Course offerings for the minor in molecular engineering will include:

  • Introduction to Emerging Technologies, taught by Matthew Tirrell. This course will examine emerging research and technology development topics such as stem cells in regenerative medicine, quantum computing, water purification and new types of batteries. Each topic will be covered for two weeks. In the first week the basic science underlying the emerging technologies will be presented. The second week will cover issues and challenges in the innovation process to convert a good scientific concept into a commercial product that addresses marketplace needs.
  • Nanomaterials: Synthesis, Fabrication and Self-Assembly, taught by David Awschalom, Andrew Cleland, Jeffrey Hubbell, Paul Nealey and Matthew Tirrell. This course will emphasize the pervasive, fundamental necessity of new materials fabrication for molecular engineering. Students will learn how to design, control and characterize the structure of materials at the nanoscale, which will serve as the essence of the institute’s research and education program.
  • Mathematical Foundations of Molecular Engineering, taught by Juan de Pablo and Giulia Galli. Students will learn to master important partial differential equations that form the predictive and modeling basis of molecular engineering. These include the Navier-Stokes, Schrödinger and Diffusion/Heat Conduction equations. Students also will learn the computational methods needed to analyze these and other equations.
  • Selected Topics in Molecular Engineering, taught by all molecular engineering faculty members. Every year the institute will offer at least one or two specific courses to cover broader topics in molecular engineering. These will include quantum materials, tissue engineering and polymer surfaces and interfaces.
  • Product Design, taught by all molecular engineering faculty members and supported by Chicago Booth’s Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation and the Illinois Institute of Technology’s School of Design. This course will cover how a product is designed for its intended use in a given market. The faculty will supply students with a basic but versatile toolset to address design issues. The students will have the opportunity to practice their learning in team-based project assignments.
  • Research, taught by all molecular engineering faculty members. The institute will require and provide a research experience for all students declaring a minor in molecular engineering.
  • Research Practice, taught by David Awschalom. Course components will be proposal development, intellectual property, transition to proof-of-concept, venture funding and partnership. To be taken in conjunction with a non-mandatory research quarter.

“Today, more and more students are driven to work on science and technology that has a direct path to helping society, whether that be in energy and climate, medicine, information technology, or elsewhere,” said Institute Fellow Seth Darling, PhD’02, a scientist who heads an engineering-oriented research group at Argonne National Laboratory’s Center for Nanoscale Materials. “You can get there starting with a pure science background, and in some ways this basic training can serve you well, but it’s surely an easier route if you learn the tools you need to do engineering early in the process. You then know what is truly involved in making things that real people can use in the real world.”

Fourteen undergraduates currently conduct research at the institute, including biological sciences major Amanuel Kibrom. In Tirrell’s laboratory, Kibrom helps synthesize and characterize various polymers that are useful in processed foods, cosmetics and drug-delivery systems. “Molecular engineering interests me because it allows me to construct my own solution to the various issues that plague the medical field and everyday life as a whole,” he said.

The Institute for Molecular Engineering makes its temporary home in the George Herbert Jones Laboratory building and the Searle Chemistry Building. The William Eckhardt Research Center, now under construction and scheduled for completion in late 2015, will provide permanent space for UChicago’s molecular engineers, who will share the building with world-leading cosmologists and astrophysicists.