New IGERT grant will help train next generation of leaders

7/27/2010 2:39:00 PM

The University of Illinois has recently been awarded a five-year, $3.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation’s Integrative Graduate Education and Research Training (IGERT) program aimed at producing the next generation of intellectual leaders who will define the new frontiers of Cellular & Molecular Mechanics and Bio-Nanotechnology (CMMB).

(l to r) CNST associate director Irfan Ahmad, Martha Gillette, Rashid Bashir (PI), and Jimmy Hsia. Taher Saif (a Co-PI) is not pictured.
(l to r) CNST associate director Irfan Ahmad, Martha Gillette, Rashid Bashir (PI), and Jimmy Hsia. Taher Saif (a Co-PI) is not pictured.
“This is the second IGERT grant awarded to the University of Illinois in less than a year,” said Ilesanmi Adesida, dean of the College of Engineering. “It aims to spark interdisciplinary education in emerging frontiers, and reflects the recognition of Illinois as a leader in nanotechnology and bioengineering.” In August 2009, the NSF awarded a similar IGERT grant to Illinois, providing opportunities for graduate students to study neuroengineering, which falls outside the boundaries of traditional disciplines like neuroscience and engineering.

“The goal of this IGERT is to produce the next generation of intellectual leaders who will define the new frontiers of cellular and molecular mechanics and bionanotechnology,” explained Rashid Bashir, the Bliss Professor of Engineering in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and the Department of Bioengineering, and principal investigator for the project. “This goal will be accomplished by creating a highly interdisciplinary environment which educates and empowers the students to take leadership roles in addressing the challenges at the cross-roads of the biological, physical, and quantitative sciences.”

Co-PIs include Martha Gillette, cell and developmental biology and molecular and integrative physiology; K. Jimmy Hsia and Taher Saif, mechanical science and engineering; and Michael Sheetz from the School of Biological Sciences at Columbia University.

“The living cell is the most fundamental building-block of all biological systems,” stated Gillette, who has joint appointments in the College of Medicine, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and the Beckman Institute. “Recent discoveries provide evidence that mechanical signals play a critical role in cell functionality. How living cells transduce mechanical signals to functionalities at different length scales presents a scientific grand challenge of our times.

“In our IGERT proposal, we responded to this very timely need and assembled a preeminent interdisciplinary team of researchers and educators across UIUC and partner institutions to train the next generation of engineers and biologists to address this grand challenge.” In their proposal, the investigators noted that recent advancements in micro/nanotechnology, molecular scale imaging, and computational methodologies will catalyze this quantitative biological revolution at a cellular and molecular scale.

“A real integration of these intellectual domains has the potential to have revolutionary impact in many areas such as tissue and regenerative engineering, biological energy harvesting, sensing and actuation, cells-as-a-machine, and synthetic biology, just to name a few,” added Bashir, who is also director of the Micro and Nanotechnology Laboratory at Illinois.

Bashir stated that the training program represents a highly coordinated and interdisciplinary effort to educate scientists and engineers across the University of Illinois, University of California-Merced, North Carolina Central University, and other partner institutions to tackle the important problems in bionanotechnology, spanning the molecular-cellular-tissue scale. International partner institutions include NUS/A* Singapore, Cambridge University, Tsinghua in China, and Max Planck in Germany.

“Some of the components of our unique training efforts include a two-track educational program to educate engineering and biology students to develop depth and breadth in their area of research, new experimental modules, and a summer workshop introducing the IGERT fellows to state-of-the-art equipment and laboratory procedures,” Hsia noted. “An exciting iWORLD program—with collaborators around the world—will provide IGERT fellows with international research experiences, and a student leader council that participates in the leadership and drives the management of the IGERT program.”

Contact: Rashid Bashir, director, Micro and Nanotechnology Laboratory, 217/333-3097.

Martha Gillette, School of Molecular and Cellular Biology, 217/244-1355.

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