UChicago’s Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering Founding Dean Matthew Tirrell hands off an impressive legacy

When the University of Chicago launched the innovative Institute for Molecular Engineering in 2011, it needed a leader who could embrace this new research and educational paradigm with energy and enthusiasm. It found that leader in Matthew Tirrell.

When Tirrell was appointed the founding Pritzker Director of the institute, he was already a pioneering researcher in biomolecular engineering and nanotechnology. A member of both the National Academy of Engineering and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, he had previously served as the dean of engineering at University of California, Santa Barbara and as chair of bioengineering at the University of California, Berkeley.

But at UChicago, Tirrell was excited about a new kind of engineering program. Then UChicago President Robert J. Zimmer envisioned a novel approach to science and engineering – one that would combine disciplines and work closely with Argonne National Laboratory, a program that would serve as a catalyst for the sciences across campus and beyond.

“This isn’t going to be directed narrowly toward one scientific discipline, but at creating an institute that attacks societal problems from a technological viewpoint,” Tirrell said at the time. “Many important societal problems in energy or health care or the environment can be addressed by new molecular-level science. When you are trying to solve problems, you need people from different kinds of disciplines. That is something we create right from the beginning.”

Over the next 12 years, the Institute grew from a new idea into the full-fledged Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering (PME), with Tirrell as dean. The school has found success on numerous fronts by taking a different view of engineering research and education, one that transcends traditional boundaries and encourages interdisciplinary approaches to address global challenges from the molecular level up.

“As with any successful venture, you need to get three things right: people, people, and people,” reflected Tom Pritzker, MBA’76, JD’76, who provided the support to name the school. “Fortunately, Bob Zimmer selected the right leader when Matt Tirrell was appointed as the founding director. I should say that Matt took career risk in coming to such a unique initiative. In effect, this was a start-up that required the drive and talent that is more frequently found in the private sector. In turn, Matt hired exceptional world-class faculty and together they recruited smart, creative, and entrepreneurial students for the new molecular engineering program. He built a culture that had speed and agility and did so in record time.”

As Tirrell transitions out of his role as dean to focus on his research, he leaves a legacy of innovation and growth, and a blueprint of how to cultivate and lead a new kind of engineering school.

“Matt defined a program of molecular engineering, weaving together themes as diverse as quantum computing and immunology, bound together by the concepts and practice of molecular manipulation. Now in its second decade, PME is a full-fledged school that is pursuing a better tomorrow, educating young people with a new paradigm,” said Thomas Rosenbaum, president of the California Institute of Technology and former provost at the University of Chicago.

An innovative approach to research

From the beginning, UChicago’s Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering has approached engineering education and research with a new lens. Instead of being placed within departments, faculty conduct research under three interdisciplinary research themes: immunoengineering, quantum engineering, and materials systems for sustainability and health, as well as a fourth theme in arts, science, and technology.

Tirrell faced the daunting task of building a faculty body of leading-edge professors who both lie within these themes and collaborate across disciplines. By 2016, the school had fifteen faculty members. Today, there are 33 PME faculty members, with an additional 10 faculty members who have secondary appointments in the school.

These faculty are highly regarded in their fields and include seven members of the National Academy of Engineering, seven members of the National Academy of Sciences, and two members of the National Academy of Medicine.

Fundamental to the school’s success has been its faculty’s unique approach to collaboration, pulling from eight science and engineering disciplines. Under Tirrell’s leadership, research grants grew, leading to funding that ultimately places PME ahead of many other established engineering schools on a per capita basis. Faculty have conducted approximately $1.47 million per faculty member of externally funded research projects this past year. More than a dozen multi-investigator collaborations also have been founded under Tirrell’s tenure — with PME as a leader or a central participant — including the Center for Hierarchical Materials Design, the Chicago Quantum Exchange, the Chicago Immunoengineering Innovation Center, and the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub.

These collaborative relationships extend well beyond UChicago. Juan de Pablo, Executive Vice President for Science, Innovation, National Laboratories, and Global Initiatives, partnered with Tirrell as PME worked to establish international relationships with Ben-Gurion University in Israel, Humboldt University in Germany, Zhejiang University in China, and Tohoku University in Japan.

In the Chicago area, Tirrell increased cooperation between PME and Argonne, where he is a senior scientist. In two separate instances, Tirrell also served as Deputy Laboratory Director for Science and Technology at Argonne, concurrently with his deanship. Together, the two institutions have developed the Advanced Materials for Energy-Water Systems (AMEWS) Center; Q-NEXT, a Department of Energy-funded center dedicated to quantum technology, and MICCOM, The Midwest Integrated Center for Computational Materials, which develops and disseminates interoperable computational tools.

“Robert Zimmer and Matthew Tirrell together envisioned and brought to life a new (and still one‐of‐a‐kind) engineering school that integrates molecular science with engineering to address today’s science and technology challenges. The now‐well‐established Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering also serves as a model for a robust partnership between academia and a federal laboratory, enabling faculty and students to make rapid transitions from ideas to prototypes to development,” shared Patricia Dehmer, former deputy director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

A new educational paradigm

Over the past 12 years, Tirrell has also overseen a significant growth in the student body. PME now boasts forty undergraduate students, 250 PhD students, and about 120 postdoctoral researchers. The first PhD graduate received her degree in 2014. The first undergraduate class to receive a bachelor’s degree in molecular engineering matriculated in 2018. In 2020, PME welcomed its inaugural class of master’s students. In 2021, PME launched a PhD program in quantum science and engineering.

As dean, Tirrell spearheaded the creation of a unique undergraduate curriculum. Built on a strong foundation in mathematics, physics, chemistry, and biology, the curriculum transcended traditional engineering disciplines to focus on major society issues in healthcare, energy, and information technology. Courses develop problem-solving skills and address open-ended technological questions, and students also have the opportunity to concentrate in one of several minors to deepen their knowledge.

“From the very beginning, former University of Chicago President Zimmer and Matt Tirrell sought to make the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering an institutional force for change. There is no other school like it today – one clearly focused on solving key challenges. Students who attend PME are exposed to a broad range of engineering concepts, preparing them to be agile interdisciplinary thinkers capable of adapting quickly to real-world demands,” said Juan de Pablo, Executive Vice President for Science, Innovation, National Laboratories, and Global Initiatives at the University of Chicago.

A bright future

Throughout his tenure as dean, Tirrell also has maintained active research on polyelectrolytes and biomedical nanoparticles, mentoring 24 postdoctoral researchers and 15 PhD students during his time at PME. His efforts have led to recognitions, including election to the National Academy of Sciences in 2019, the 2022 Gutenberg Chair award, and an honorary doctorate from the University of Bordeaux in 2022.

As Tirrell transitions out of his role as dean, he will actively continue research on targeted nanomedicine that delivers an inhibitor directly to inflamed blood vessels caused by atherosclerosis.

Driving the vision of former President Robert Zimmer, Tirrell has created an outsized legacy at Pritzker Molecular Engineering and the University of Chicago that will forever be part of the school’s DNA. He steps down from his role September 30. Tirrell will be succeeded by physicist Nadya Mason.