PME celebrates 10 years of molecular innovation

The Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering (PME) commemorated its 10-year anniversary Friday, Sept. 17 through Saturday, Sept. 18, with special events highlighting the school’s ongoing mission to develop new solutions for pressing global challenges. Events were held online and in-person at the University of Chicago’s David Rubenstein Forum with presentations from industry leaders, PME faculty, and members of the scientific community.

In addition to marking Pritzker Molecular Engineering’s anniversary, the events were an opportunity for leaders in science and engineering to share their experiences with the school and discuss the state of the field. The program included lectures, panel discussions, fireside chats, and Q&A sessions with Nobel laureates Frances Arnold, Bernard L. Feringa, and William D. Philips; leadership from the Department of Defense (DOD), Department of Energy (DOE), and National Institutes of Health (NIH); and leaders from the University, including Chancellor Robert J. Zimmer.

Matthew Tirrell, dean of Pritzker Molecular Engineering, spoke about the school’s past and future.

“PME started with the mission to affect profoundly the future of engineering and applied science research and education and ultimately to benefit humanity,” Tirrell said. “Our focus on a few particular transformative topics in engineering science has enabled us to compete with the very best traditional engineering programs in those areas.”

“The next ten years will be about the scale of our existing activities, investment in strategically chosen new opportunities, broadening educational offerings, and the acceleration of commercialization activities.”

Alumni and Industry Day — September 17

Friday’s alumni and industry day set off the celebrations with faculty talks and industry and alumni panelists, focused on each of PME’s research themes — Immunoengineering, Materials Systems for Sustainability and Health, and Quantum Engineering.

Following the morning’s events, Dean Matthew Tirrell hosted a one-on-one chat with CEO of Valor Equity Partners Antonio Gracias, JD’98. The two discussed trends in higher education, the shifting work environment in a post-Covid era, the importance of understanding market forces on industrial research, and the opportunities for growth in Chicago.

“Getting investors to think about the ideas and the companies here in Chicago, and bringing more capital here using virtual tools, is a very real opportunity for us,” said Gracias.

The day concluded with concurrent alumni panels, one focused on careers in industry and the other on careers in academia, and a poster session highlighting current student research.

Scientific Conference — September 18

Saturday’s scientific conference drew leaders from academia, industry, and government who spoke about molecular research and what role PME can play in the future of academic research.

The morning began with lectures from Vanessa Chan, chief commercialization officer and director of the Office of Technology Transitions at the U.S. Department of Energy; Bindu Nair, director of basic research in the Office of Undersecretary of Defense at the U.S. Department of Defense; and Jennifer Couch, chief of the Structural Biology and Molecular Applications Branch, National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health. Topics included how to better prepare research students for industry roles, opportunities to improve the government research pipeline, and emerging technologies in translational medicine.

Nair, who spoke about the current state of DOD-funded research, stressed the importance of convergent engineering to address global issues.

“The greatest challenges we’re facing are complex and multidisciplinary, involving many scientific domains, working together in ways yet to be understood,” Nair said. “All of that is before the challenge of modeling at a global scale.”

The morning continued with lectures from Ben L. Feringa (Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 2016), William D. Phillips (Nobel Prize in Physics, 1997), and Frances Arnold (Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 2018), who spoke about their work and reflected on how research institutions could better engage with unrepresented communities. A Q&A panel with Phillips and Arnold, moderated by David Awschalom, Liew Family Professor of Molecular Engineering and vice dean for research and infrastructure, followed.

Tom Pritzker, MBA’76, JD’76, executive chairman of Hyatt Hotels Corp, opened the afternoon’s events, speaking on PME’s impact.

“I am a Chicagoan so bear with me as I quote Daniel Burnham, from more than a century ago,” Pritzker said. “In my view, it is applicable to what we are doing at PME, ‘Make no small plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized.’”

Robert J. Zimmer, chancellor of the University of Chicago, who oversaw the founding of PME, also gave remarks, reflecting on the challenges of starting UChicago’s first engineering school.

“Because [PME] has had so much success, it’s easy to ignore that there was risk involved at the beginning,” he said. “So it’s particularly gratifying to be here with so many who have been so important in making this a reality,” he said.

The following hour featured a panel discussion moderated by David Rubenstein, JD’73, co-founder and co-executive chairman of The Carlyle Group. On the panel were France A. Córdova, president of the Science Philanthropy Alliance and former director of the National Science Foundation; David Axelrod, AB’76, founder and director of UChicago’s Institute of Politics; and Walter Massey, president emeritus of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and president emeritus of Morehouse College.

Juan de Pablo, vice president for national laboratories, science strategy, innovation, and global initiatives; and Liew Family Professor in Molecular Engineering, gave remarks at the end of Saturday afternoon’s session.

“Today, thanks to the hard work and partnerships with many of our friends throughout the world, we have achieved something very special for molecular engineering.”

The night concluded with a celebratory reception and dinner. Paul Alivisatos, president of the University of Chicago, spoke at the event.

“What the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering has accomplished over the past ten years is nothing less than remarkable,” Alivisatos said. “It stands as an example of how the University of Chicago can redefine an entire field, expand its scholarship, and engage with the world. I’m looking forward to continuing that work and elevating the University’s research to address some of the biggest challenges facing society today.”