UChicago awarded $1.9 million NIH grant to train immunoengineers

The Chicago Immunoengineering Innovation Center (CIIC), housed within the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering (PME) at the University of Chicago, has received the Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award (NRSA) to support its Immunoengineering Postdoctoral Training (ImEPosT) Program.

The $1.9 million award will fund the ImEPosT program over the next five years, training 18 postdoctoral candidates throughout the grant’s lifecycle. The program will prepare postdoctoral candidates — primarily immunologists and bioengineers — for academic and industry careers in immunoengineering. It will also provide candidates with broader professional, entrepreneurial, and communications training.

Prof. Melody Swartz
Prof. Melody Swartz

Melody Swartz, William B. Ogden Professor of Molecular Engineering, will serve as the program’s primary director and believes this grant provides a novel training experience for the next generation of immunoengineers.

“Our program supports early-stage postdoctoral researchers while they pursue interdisciplinary training in immunoengineering,” Swartz said. “We designed the program to not only ensure deep cross-disciplinary training in both immunology and engineering, including a mentoring committee of three faculty members, but also to provide them with guidance in the soft skills required for success in today’s research environment.”

Immunoengineering is a cross-disciplinary field that applies engineering design and fabrication concepts to immunology research in order to better understand the immune system and develop new diagnostic tools and clinical treatments to address autoimmune diseases. The CIIC was established in 2020 to facilitate work in this field at UChicago, bringing together clinicians, immunologists, and bioengineers under one overarching banner.

Translational science, translational education

In addition to developing immunoengineering research, ImEPosT candidates will also receive career training through grant writing workshops, chalk talk seminars, mock academic interviews, entrepreneurship programs, and community outreach programs.

“For researchers entering a postdoc, it’s crucial to not only understand the science, but also be able to communicate the scope and impact of their work to a wide variety of audiences,” said Laura Rico-Beck, PME’s assistant dean of education and outreach. “Purposeful engagement in outreach can also be a really effective tool in developing critical professional skills like teaching and mentoring. It also creates opportunities to learn from and be motivated by different audiences while authentically engaging in community-based scholarship.”

Maria-Luisa (Marisa) Alegre, professor of medicine and an immunologist at the University of Chicago, will serve as the program’s co-director. In her view, the training program will play a major role in the future of immunoengineering.

“By giving these young people formalized training and the tools to be better researchers, we are multiplying the impact of this field,” Alegre said. “Some of the postdocs will go into faculty positions, some will go into industry, and they’ll all implement ideas they developed here. They’ll train more engineers and that will snowball quickly. It perpetuates the field and brings major innovations to immunology.”

The inaugural cohort of ImEPosT candidates began their work on September 1, 2021.

The Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award (NRSA) Institutional Research Training Grant (T32) is provided by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and was created to enhance predoctoral and postdoctoral research training.