Illinois is a partner in new NSF Center to investigate the creation of biological machines

2/18/2010 12:38:00 PM

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded $25 million to establish the Center for Emergent Behaviors of Integrated Cellular Systems (EBICS) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and the Georgia Institute of Technology. Part of the NSF’s Science and Technology Centers Integrative Partnerships program, the center’s objectives are to dramatically advance research in complex biological systems, create new educational programs based on this research, and demonstrate leadership in its involvement of groups traditionally underrepresented in science and engineering.

“We are very pleased to be partnering with two of our peer institutions in this new center,” said Ilesanmi Adesida, dean of the College of Engineering. “This grant and this new center represent a remarkable investment in one of the most exciting growth areas--the intersections of modern engineering and biology. Collaborations at this level demonstrate a significant commitment to creating and sharing knowledge across a very wide community." Illinois faculty are involved with two of the five STC's announced this week by the NSF.

The University of Illinois will receive about $1.66 million per year to support EBICS' research, education, diversity, and knowledge transfer efforts. The Illinois team includes researchers from mechanical science and engineering, electrical and computer engineering, bioengineering, chemical and biomolecular engineering, cell and developmental biology, neuroscience, animal science, and the College of Veterinary Medicine. The center’s educational efforts also draw upon expertise from College of Education and I-STEM.

“Our efforts in this area largely grew out of the Center for Cellular Mechanics (CCM) that we seeded about four years ago. CCM has been very active over the last few years holding lots of seminars, workshops, summer schools and writing lots of proposals,” Adesida added. “Professors Jimmy Hsia, Taher Saif, Martha Gillette, and Rashid Bashir led these efforts and they have worked very hard to make them very successful, and we congratulate them. The students and researchers who participate in these programs will shape the future of biological science and engineering on a global scale.”

Headquartered at MIT, the EBICS Center’s research activities will take place at the three partner schools, as well as at a number of other minority-serving institutions. Collectively, they will help create the knowledge, tools, and technologies to “create highly sophisticated, ‘programmed,’ multi-cell engineered biological systems or machines,” according to Roger Kamm, MIT’s Germeshausen Professor of Mechanical and Biological Engineering, and the Center’s founding director. To reach this goal, the Center’s research program has three components of increasing complexity, plus an enabling technologies thrust.

The Illinois team will play an active role in the Center's leadership. K. Jimmy Hsia, a professor of mechanical science and engineering and associate dean of the Graduate College at Illinois, will serve as associate director of EBICS and Director for Education; Martha Gillette from the School of Molecular and Cellular Biology will be Co-Director for Research; Rashid Bashir, a professor of electrical and computer engineering and of bioengineering, will be a research thrust leader; Lizanne DeStefano from the College of Education will be Co-Director for Education; and Taher Saif, the GutGsell Professor in mechanical science and engineering and the director of the Center for Cellular Mechanics, will join the above individuals on the EBICS Executive Committee.

Working first to better understand the individual properties and mechanisms of individual cells and cell types, then on the interactive, collective behaviors of cell clusters, EBICS researchers will then create simple cellular machines or factories that perform specific functions.

“Ultimately, we envision being able to create biological modules—sensors, processors, actuators—that can be assembled in various ways to produce different capabilities,” Kamm explained. “If successful, this will open up an entirely new field of research with wide-ranging implications, ranging from regenerative medicine to developmental biology.”

K. Jimmy Hsia
K. Jimmy Hsia
The center will develop programs aimed at attracting students to STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) fields, and particularly to the growing area of bioengineering. The educational effort will consist of a two-track, integrated graduate program for engineers to learn biological science, and for biologists to learn engineering methods. Directed by Hsia, the Center will coordinate educational offerings and programming across a teaching consortium of eight U.S. universities and several international institutions.

“EBICS offers the opportunity to create a truly innovative, transformative approach to interdisciplinary graduate and undergraduate education,” Hsia said. “The impact of such an approach is multiplied beyond the three primary institutions by the proposed teaching consortium. The center’s educational programs aim at producing the next generation of research and education leaders who are truly knowledgeable in both biology and engineering, and who will potentially shape how research and education are done in this new field.”

The EBICS Center’s diversity objectives will overlay its research and educational efforts, and will be overseen by Robert M. Nerem, Parker H. Petit Distinguished Chair for Engineering in Medicine and Institute Professor at Georgia Tech. The center will engage faculty from minority-serving institutions on research projects, and work closely with existing outreach and recruitment programs at all partner institutions to ensure the broadest range of participation in all of its programs.

“For the U.S. to be competitive globally in the 21st century it must leverage the inherent strength of its diverse population,” Nerem said. “The more diverse a science and engineering team is, the more likely will the advances in the technology created be truly innovative.”

EBICS has a number of critical alliances that will enhance its activities. To attract a diverse community of researchers and educators, EBICS has formed strategic partnerships with several minority serving institutions, including UC Merced, CUNY, and a consortium of Atlanta universities. The Center will also draw on the Global Enterprise for MicroMechanics and Molecular Medicine (GEM4 ), an international collaboration of which Illinois is a founding member. Educational activities will encompass an NSF-funded GEM4 Summer School series as well as a graduate teaching consortium that will bring in five additional universities across the U.S. and several internationally. 

The EBICS is one of five new NSF Science and Technology Center awards as a result of a recent, merit-based competition.

“These five new STCs will involve world class teams of researchers and educators, integrate learning and discovery in innovative ways, tackle complex problems that require the long-term support afforded by this program, and lead to the development of new technologies with significant impact well into the future," said NSF Director Arden L. Bement.

Contact: Jimmy Hsia, Department of Mechanical Science and Engineering, 217/333-2321.

If you have any questions about the College of Engineering, or other story ideas, contact Rick Kubetz, Engineering Communications Office, 217/244-7716, editor.