IME Hosts two-day symposium: Frontiers of Molecular Engineering

On September 27 and 28, the Institute for Molecular Engineering (IME) at the University of Chicago hosted Frontiers of Molecular Engineering. The first-of-its-kind symposium brought together world leaders in the emerging field of molecular engineering to share their latest work and to discuss key challenges to innovation.

Over the course of the two-day event, 25 researchers convened to discuss their discoveries and the future of molecular engineering. Speakers came from institutions across the globe, including the University of Chicago, Argonne National Laboratory, Stanford University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of California at Berkeley, Australian National University, Liverpool University, and College de France.

Juan de Pablo, Liew Family Professor in Molecular Engineering at IME and vice president of national laboratories at UChicago, opened the symposium, noting that advances in the ability to manipulate molecules “has led to the concept of using molecular principles to engineer solutions to societal challenges.”

Poornima Padmanabhan, assistant professor of chemical engineering at the Rochester Institute of Technology, attended the event to “learn about the cutting-edge science and get new ideas for my research.”

Frontiers of Molecular Engineering initiated in-depth discussions of critical issues that intersect with this new field of scientific study. Presentations focused primarily on fundamental materials science, with an emphasis on global challenges in health care and the environment.

Cutting-edge research

On the health care side, John Rogers of Northwestern University discussed bio-resorbable implants and the development of water-soluble transient electronics, while Sarah Heilshorn of Stanford covered new developments in stem cell transplantation.

Jeffrey Hubbell, Eugene Bell Professor of Tissue Engineering at IME, studies cancer immunotherapy, or ways to use the body’s immune system to find and fight cancer. His talk highlighted innovations in drug delivery systems for tumor suppression. Specifically, he discussed whether targeted therapies injected into the bloodstream could be as effective as treatments injected into tumors, with fewer adverse effects.

Hubbell remarked, “We found that if we use targeted drugs, we have just as much efficacy, with less toxicity.”  

Presentations on the environment included the work of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s Chris Spadaccini on additive manufacturing and University of Washington Clean Energy Institute's Christine Luscombe on wearable electronics. Luscombe explained her work on how to design and build organic electronics that can be stretched while retaining the optical properties for energy capture solutions.

Poster session and awards

Conference programming also featured a poster session with work from more than 40 students from across the globe. On day two, three students each received a $100 cash prize from the journal Molecular Systems Design & Engineering (MSDE) for their posters. Ashley Guo, a fourth-year student at IME, was honored for her poster, “Understanding nucleosome dynamics using diffusion maps.”

The second day also included the presentation of MSDE’s inaugural prize for best emerging investigator paper to Andrew Ferguson, associate professor of molecular engineering at IME. Ferguson was honored for his paper “Rational design of patchy colloids via landscape engineering.”

Recognizing an emerging field

Matthew Tirrell, dean and founding Pritzker director of IME, said, “This conference demonstrates how the Institute for Molecular Engineering and the University of Chicago have become the epicenter of the emerging field of molecular engineering. This is where world-class researchers from across disciplines come to discuss advancements and promising research in the field.”

Ryan Shafranek, a fourth-year chemistry PhD student from the University of Washington in attendance, summed up the symposium this way: “It was an informative and promising conference for the growing community surrounding molecular-level design.”

Frontiers of Molecular Engineering was organized by the Royal Society of Chemistry and sponsored by the MSDE, the Institution of Chemical Engineers, and the National Science Foundation.