Transcending Boundaries in the Eckhardt Research Center

Slated to make its grand opening October 29th, the new Eckhardt Research Center (ERC) will act not only as the new home for the Institute for Molecular Engineering (IME), but also for several sections of the Physical Sciences Division (PSD), including the Astronomy and Astrophysics Department, the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics, and the Dean’s Office. All of the IME faculty, staff, students, and postdoctoral researchers will be located, in close proximity, in the state-of-the-art Eckhardt Center, a building envisioned to be a globally recognized center where traditional boundaries, boundaries such as those between engineering, astronomy, and physics, are not only pushed, but transcended.

Awaiting a new home

This will be the first time in four years of its existence that the IME will have its very own home on the University of Chicago campus. The IME was previously spread throughout multiple locations on campus, including Jones Laboratory, Searle Chemical Laboratory, Peck Pavilion, Young Memorial Building, and the Gordon Center for Integrative Science. For the Astronomy and Astrophysics Department, it has been a slightly longer wait. As Dean of the Physical Sciences Division and Arthur Holly Compton Distinguished Service Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics, Rocky Kolb, remarked, “Since the University last built a building for Astronomy, the Cubs have won the [World Series] twice. That gives you an idea—this is something we’re looking forward to.” [Note: the Chicago Cubs last won the MLB World Series in 1908.]

The idea for the creation of the Eckhardt Center originated long before IME was conceived; it originally began as an endeavor to house the Astronomy and Astrophysics Department. However, the addition of IME truly paved the way for the entirely unique and advanced building that is now the Eckhardt Center.

“A new building for astronomy and astrophysics has been in the works ever since I've been at the University, maybe at least since the 60s. There have been many false starts and many aborted attempts to do something, and finally, we're getting something. So actually, the idea of the building for astronomy, to bring everyone together, has been around for a very long time. But the planning for the Eckhardt Center started in 2003, 4, or 5, before there was an idea of the IME. So having IME as part of the building, which wasn’t in the original plan, really was a game changer, and changed the nature and size and functionality of the building, something that we're really going to take advantage of," said Kolb.

Fostering partnerships and interactions

The IME is delighted to be sharing the new space with the PSD, especially with the increased potential for new collaborations and interactions between the two divisions. As IME Founding Pritzker Director and Professor Matthew Tirrell described, "We will really span activities from the tiniest to the most gigantic. Plus, molecular engineering can contribute to Astronomy and Astrophysics via fabrication of new detectors and other instrumentation." Additionally, having all IME researchers with diverse backgrounds ranging from chemical engineering to engineering physics to biomedical engineering in the same location will be beneficial for future partnerships within IME itself.

With the goal of fostering new connections in mind, the IME and PSD wanted to set the Eckhardt Center in the most optimal layout, different from a lot of other buildings on campus. “The Eckhardt Center was designed with lots of open collaboration spaces, areas that we haven’t had before. Traditionally, it was a hallway with offices, but here, we have interaction areas, conference rooms: a truly open place. The great, revolutionary ideas that germinate from these random interactions will be incredible," said Kolb.

Emphasizing application

Fabricating new features and devices at the nanoscale level is at the heart of molecular engineering, as the IME aims to solve societal issues with these molecular-sized tools and solutions. One of the unique aspects of the Eckhardt Center, which will be heavily utilized by IME, is the Pritzker Nanofabrication Facility; it is truly the first of its kind not only in Chicago, but also in the country. Located in the first basement (LL1) of the ERC, the distinctive facility will be headed by the John A. MacLean Sr. Professor for Molecular Engineering Innovation and Enterprise, Andrew Cleland. “The PNF provides a unique research and development environment for the academic and industrial scientist interested in pursuing state-of-the-art micro- and nanoscale fabrication. It provides a full suite of advanced lithographic tools, chosen to be compatible with a wide range of different materials and processes. We anticipate drawing researchers from the Chicago area, the Midwest, and nationally to this facility, both to use this facility and to establish collaborations with IME and UChicago researchers,” explained Cleland.

Tirrell is confident that the Eckhardt Center is poised to become "part of a new complex of buildings focused on applied science," signaling the University's efforts to concentrate on application, a departure from the traditional, heavy emphasis on pure, discovery-driven science and theory. This shift, combined with the advanced, but adaptable, infrastructure of the ERC, will allow the University to attract top talents who might not have come to the University otherwise. Kolb commented, "To recruit top faculty and top students requires the facilities to allow them to do the best science they can do. With the Eckhardt Center, we will have the facilities and the infrastructure to allow that, and we want faculty and students to be limited only by their dreams and imagination, not by vibrations in their laboratory.”

Transcending boundaries

The idea of "transcending boundaries" has permeated throughout the IME and the Astronomy and Astrophysics Department for years. “We have, in astronomy, a reputation of being an innovative department that does new things. Back in our history, we were the first department to do astrophysics—not astronomy, not physics, but really, astrophysics. And, it’s part of our nature to explore new fields and push boundaries, and not only push the boundaries that exist, but transcend them. An example of that is here, in the 70s, 80s, 90s, up until today, we led the development of a field: the convergence between elementary particle physics, high-energy physics, astronomy and astrophysics. Particle cosmology really was developed here. And that’s the kind of boundary we like to transcend, the boundary between astronomy and physics,” said Kolb.

Overlooking the main hallway on the first floor of the Eckhardt Center is a statement that embodies the transcendent quality characterizing its identity: "From the tiniest subatomic particles to the infinite realms of the Universe, the Eckhardt Research Center is the gateway to making the invisible, visible. Its vision transcends the boundaries of scientific disciplines, exploring the mysteries and laws of nature while applying them to the needs of our 21st century world.” Undoubtedly, this building will last for decades and decades to come, allowing multiple generations of IME and PSD researchers and students to experience the invaluable benefits of transcending boundaries at the University of Chicago.

-Story by Claire Liu

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