IME welcomes two innovative bioengineering professors to its ranks

The University of Chicago’s Institute for Molecular Engineering (IME) has appointed two accomplished new faculty members, expanding its faculty to twelve total members.  Since its 2011 inception, the IME has burgeoned as a haven for solving globally pertinent technological problems through transformational approaches to molecular-level science.

The new faculty members are: Savas Tay, PhD, from the ETH Zürich in Switzerland, and Jun Huang, PhD, from Stanford University in California.  Tay has been appointed as an associate professor and Huang has been appointed as an assistant professor.  Tay will be a joint appointment between the IME and the Institute for Genomics and Systems Biology.   

Dean and Founding Pritzker Director of the IME, Matthew Tirrell believes that these appointments mark the start of an exciting new wave of future assistant and associate professor additions to the IME family.  He foresees a balance of junior and senior faculty as a recipe for the Institute’s healthy growth in the years ahead.

Savas Tay

Tay’s research centers on the cornerstone of bioengineering and systems biology.  The overarching goal of his research group is to investigate how biological systems process information about their environments.  Tay’s group performs precision measurements on living cells and generates environments that mimic in vivo conditions, that is, could be generalized to function within living organisms.

What sorts of tools does Tay use to understand these complex questions?  His group is developing experimental devices at micrometer and nanometer scales, using microfluidics and optofluidics. Microfluidics is the interdisciplinary field of using liquids at very small volumes to design systems that can fit on a microchip.  Optofluidics is the combination of microfluidics and optics to generate new molecular imaging techniques.  The goal is to produce methods of analyzing individual living cells that are high in accuracy, throughput, and consistency, but also low in cost.

The implications for Tay’s work are immense.  The knowledge he is pursuing about cellular and system-level molecular mechanisms can be applied across the board to biological and medical research, as well as the daily practice of medicine.  Modeling these systems can lend insight into their interactions with diseases, thereby producing powerful information for drug discovery.

Tirrell comments, “Microfluidics enables you to do a lot of things in a small area...[Tay] can look at, essentially, gene expression and chemical reactions going on inside of cells in real time, and follow these with great precision.  This will be very useful in studies of immunology but also in all kinds of biological studies.  Plus, there is his expertise in device fabrication, which could help people in areas that are far from his own research.”

Tay is thrilled to join the IME and the University as a whole.

“[University of Chicago] has always been a scientific powerhouse, and I was particularly impressed with their plans on starting a new institute focused on molecular engineering, which aims at solving some of the most outstanding problems of society, namely healthcare, energy and the environment…I am most excited about this new vision of approaching engineering from a ‘problems’ perspective rather than from within the boundaries of traditional disciplines,” Tay said.

A trained physicist, Tay had worked in optical physics and developed the “first dynamic holographic 3-dimensional displays” with medical and neuroscientific applications.  He realized his physicist training could bring powerful techniques to the table in answering the most important questions in science, which he felt were in the realm of biology.

Tay’s passion for pursuing his research is palpable.  He puts it himself most poignantly: “I am motivated with the desire to help better the human condition.  If I can help cure a disease by the end of my career, I will retire a happy man.”

Tay received a bachelor’s degree from Marmara University in Turkey in physics and education.  In 2007, he received a PhD from the College of Optical Sciences at the University of Arizona.  Following that, he worked at the Stanford University Bioengineering Department and Howard Hughes Medical Institute.  Tay has also received the prestigious European Research Commission ERC grant.

Jun Huang

Huang’s work can be described as molecular immunology with a bioengineering slant.  His group studies the protective immune function of several types of T cells, such as regulatory T cells and natural killer cells, all of which are types of lymphocytes.  Lymphocytes, a subset of “white blood cells,” are released by the immune system in response to a pathogen threat – a viral infection, for instance.  They are part of the “adaptive immune system:” these lymphocytes specifically seek out signals of infection –“antigens” – which are emitted by “antigen-presenting cells.”  Huang wants to determine the “how” and “how much” of these processes. 

His work has far-reaching implications for research on a variety of diseases, namely in the development of immunotherapies for treating infectious diseases and cancer.  In Huang’s words, “you can relate almost every disease to T-cells.”

Tirrell remarked, “IME is emphasizing a new area of bioengineering, which is bioengineering around the immune system…[Huang] developed fundamentally new tools for measuring the strength of interaction between cells of the immune system and their targets in various kinds of antigen-presenting cells… focusing directly on what you would call the physics of immunology.”

To accomplish these means, Huang utilizes tools like single-molecule, single-cell, and systems-level immunology imaging and assay techniques.  Huang highlighted his pointedly quantitative approach.

Citing his engineering background, he commented, “engineering is very different from biology.  We want precise, quantitative.  We want to solve a problem practically…biology is in the transition process from descriptive, qualitative science to quantitative science…how high is ‘high’? How low is ‘low’?”  

For instance, Huang seeks to quantify the sensitivity of T-cells’ targeting mechanisms – that is, how a T-cell can specifically attack a viral pathogen without damaging healthy tissue.  “People only have described it as ‘very sensitive.’  We want to get a number,” he said.

Huang expressed his excitement at joining the IME, where he officially started his appointment on July 1, 2015.

Huang said that “Matt Tirrell took the lead on creating the Institute for the Molecular Engineering, which I think is a big deal – not just for the University of Chicago, but also the Chicago area.”     

Huang received a MS in chemical engineering in 2007 and PhD in bioengineering in 2008 from the Georgia Institute of Technology, after finishing his bachelor’s in China.  He was subsequently a postdoctoral researcher in immunology at Stanford University.  Huang is a recipient of the esteemed NIH Pathway to Independence Award (K99/R00) and has recently also been awarded another NIH Exploratory (R21) grant on “Direct visualization of serial engagement by T cell receptors”.

-Story by Stephanie Bi

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