My short bio: Currently, I am the Deputy Director of Science of Argonne National Laboratory and Pritzker Director of the Institute for Molecular Engineering (IME). I joined the IME from the University of California, Berkeley. A pioneering researcher in biomolecular engineering and nanotechnology, I specialize in the manipulation and measurement of the surface properties of polymers – materials that consist of long, flexible chain molecules.

I graduated from Northwestern University in 1973 an began my academic career in 1977 at the University of Minnesota where I served as Shell Distinguished Chair in Chemical Engineering, Earl E. Bakken Professor of Biomedical Engineering and head of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science.

My Proof:

Thank you all so much! I really enjoyed this time with all of you. You are well-informed and curious. We are constantly growing so please follow our progress at

Comments: 115 • Responses: 27  • Date: 

Telrunya4439 karma

Given your background with the Institute, what is your attitude towards synthetic human replicates?

Should they be viewed as mere tools, or given rights as sentient beings?

Justinhsb21 karma

Important moral and ethical questions such as cloning, gene-editing and many others are indeed connected with work at the IME and other major research institutions. This is another reason why IME avoids narrow disciplinary definition. We must stay in touch with our public policy and social science colleagues in a manner different from the narrow disciplinary sciences and engineering.

iceit1234515 karma

How will IME be able to distinguish itself from other prominent engineering institutions in the next 10, 15 years?

Justinhsb10 karma

This is an excellent question and one to which we have given considerable thought. I believe we will distinguish ourselves sooner than 10 years. That is because we are not trying to recreate the other fine engineering schools that already exist. We are doing things that one can really only do if one has a clean slate. Of course, many of our current faculty are experienced at others schools so we know ways that we believe can improve on them.

For example, we are not dividing engineering education and research into narrow slices. Our view is that the “discipline” is ENGINEERING, period. How to turn science, math and computation into useful products for society. Most practical problems require combinations of talents to solve them. That is how we will excel.

Furthermore, we will target forefront areas of engineering very strongly. For example, we may not have the numerical size of some bioengineering or electrical engineering departments, but by concentrating our efforts strongly in important areas, such as immuno-engineering, or quantum engineering, we believe we are already beginning to lead these fields.

Finally, the combination of the University of Chicago and Argonne is not totally unique, but nearly so; few programs have this set of assets.

mustached_bandit13 karma

How can a quantum computer make my Iphone faster?

Justinhsb20 karma

Unlikely to make it faster any time soon, but safer from a secure communications viewpoint, quite possibly. Quantum information tools enable signals to be transmitted in ways that make eavesdropping much more difficult.

gameofchance11 karma

What have you worked on or currently are working on that you feel will have the biggest impact on science and/or the world?

Justinhsb23 karma

From my own lab, I think the biggest impact will be in the development of nanoparticles that can patrol in the bloodstream on the look out for, and able to treat, medical conditions that do not yet present symptoms. Cancer is, of course, very significant in this regard, but we are focused on heart disease, which is actually a numerically larger cause of death than cancer and much less studied in nano medicine. We have particles that can detect early stage heart disease and are working on better diagnostic and therapeutic methods.

RocketTech9911 karma

Is it possible to create a conductive polymer which stretches from the Earth to a stable geocentric orbit?

Justinhsb16 karma

Not now or in the foreseeable future

SuperAlbertN79 karma

As someone in Gymnasium (Danish High School) I would like to ask which part of your job do enjoy the most? And what is your day to day job like? I know I want to go into some scientific field myself but I don't really know what it's like to actually work in a scientific field.

Justinhsb11 karma

In a sense, what I like most is that the entire job is teaching in one way or another. Of course, I do in class teaching, such as my class on Introduction to Emerging Technologies, but every talk I give on other campuses, every paper or proposal I write, as well as this AMA, are teaching. I enjoy finding new ways to get important messages across about my field, my research, IME, the University of Chicago and Argonne. You have to like interacting with students and other audiences to do this job.

tamarps7 karma

What do you think are the technological challenges in supplying clean and abundant water where IME can contribute the most?

Justinhsb7 karma

In the IME at Argonne and at the University of Chicago, there are program developing new catalysts and membranes for removing impurities from water, as well as unique radio-isotope methods for tracking the movement of water underground. This technique allows us to see whether streams of water are merging, and/or being depleted or replenished.

jjob976 karma

Hi, hat problems have already been solved with nano technology that we may not know about?

Justinhsb4 karma

The first product that I know of that used the prefix “Nano-“ in its product name was a commercial atomic force microscope produced in the 1990’s by Digital Instruments in Santa Barbara, called the Nanoscope. So, yes, I would say that nanotechnology has already solved many problems.

Roach27915 karma

Are you on the verge of any big breakthrough's?

Justinhsb13 karma

No one talks about breakthroughs that are about to be made … that’s the most delicate time. When you’re working to make sure that fascinating things you’ve achieved in the lab are reliable, reproducible, scalable. If you really believe you’ve made a remarkable breakthrough, you want to be absolutely certain of all the facts before you tout it. There are numerous embarrassing counter examples, e.g., cold fusion.

Roach27916 karma

Ya that would suck, "man invents cure to cancer" (next day headlines) "man did not invent cure to cancer"

Justinhsb11 karma

That has happened

aloralors5 karma

What's your favorite restaurant in Hyde Park?

Justinhsb8 karma

Increasingly, there are more and more choices. 53rd St is becoming a very vibrant place. Promontory, A10, Chant top my list

musiquesublime4 karma

What distinguishes molecular engineering from chemical engineering?

Justinhsb7 karma

I am a chemical engineer by my undergraduate training, I then did a PhD in polymer science, so I embody some of the breadth that distinguishes molecular engineering. In IME at Argonne and the University of Chicago, we work on practical aspects of quantum materials as well as immunology. I know of no chemical engineering program that has that scope. We are about convergence of disciplines not separation of disciplines.

materialscie4 karma

How are the long-term health impacts of nanomedicine currently studied, and how do these unknowns direct your lab's research decisions?

Justinhsb7 karma

This is a very significant question. The long term effects have to be studied by the careful clinical trial methods used for drugs and devices. But there are other decisions to be made, too. For example, if we succeed in developing a safe nanoparticle that can give early warning of developing heart disease, to whom do we give it? Every 50 year old during an annual check up? I doubt it. More likely, at first to those with a family or personal history of heart disease. So many decisions and adaptations have to be made along the way to actually implementation.

morgandianaj3 karma

What kind of majors are you looking for when accepting IME Graduate students?

Justinhsb3 karma

In the our first three years of recruiting grad students, we have accepted students with majors in biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, chemical engineering, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering and materials science. Many of these students are involved in research projects that span Argonne and the University of Chicago campus.

heytherejustin3 karma

What are the Institute for Molecular Engineering and its partners doing to combat climate change? In what ways does molecular-level science have impacts on a global scale?

Justinhsb8 karma

To answer your second question first, if by global impact you mean impact on the environment, I would say that some of our biggest impacts will be in molecular engineering applied to water resources. Water purification, monitoring water quality, understanding movement of water in soil, all have molecular engineering routes to innovation. For climate change itself, I think acquisition of good quantitative data via new sensors and instrumentation is where molecular engineering will have great impact.

iceit123453 karma

What qualities do you look for when recruiting new faculty members from other institutions? What is the big advertising point you use to get faculty to come to IME?

Justinhsb3 karma

The first thing I look for is someone who is happy and successful at the institution where they are now. Happy, successful people propagate that attitude. The track record of success is, of course, crucial. We want people who have demonstrated intellectual leadership and an ability to create knowledge and technical know-how that no one else has achieved in their fields. As we grow, we increasingly have to consider how each new person will help us build the distinctive programs we are building in the IME at Argonne and the University of Chicago.

iceit123453 karma

What's your favorite place to visit in Chicago (away from work)? Any places you visit often (maybe the Art Institute or the Chicago Symphony, for example)?

Justinhsb3 karma

Many restaurants, all over the city. Goodman Theatre, Steppenwolf Theatre, Chicago Botanic Garden

Nuclear_Football2 karma

How does the political climate affect the progress your institute is making towards advancing science? How do the scientists deal with funding cuts and politicians that don't believe in science like climate change?

Justinhsb6 karma

All scientists and engineers would like those who control the purse strings for funding of science and technology to appreciate better the value that these activities bring to society. By creating a problem-based, rather than a discipline-based, program we intend to bring out this value more. We think that as our graduates move into important jobs in society we believe this attitude may take a stronger hold.

thenoseguard2 karma

How does being "problem based" make IME more or less functional?

Justinhsb2 karma

To be frank, this is a bet we are making, based in part on our experience in traditional engineering and applied science programs and in part on wanting to establish a distinctive competitive position early in our existence. We think if students are coached early that they need to be able to understand and communicate effectively about solutions to technical problems with people bringing many different toolsets, they will succeed more rapidly. We will observe how our alumni succeed in their careers with the tools we give them. Nothing is more important to our future than the success of our alumni.

jacksonflats2 karma

Why does the IME not want to get ABET accreditation?

Justinhsb5 karma

We have not ruled it out, but (a) I think it may not be necessary; (b) it is not possible to apply until after several classes have graduated; (c) it is very narrow discipline oriented, contrary to out educational philosophy.

romanr662 karma

Will there every be flexible ole displays the one can fold like paper?

Justinhsb2 karma

I see no reason why that should not be possible? Indeed, perhaps there will also be foldable, 2D, inorganic materials as well

iceit123452 karma

What future opportunities are available for students who will be pursuing molecular engineering, either as an undergraduate or a graduate student?

Justinhsb2 karma

The future opportunities for students are enormous in both research and in hands-on engineering. We view molecular engineering as a convergence of applications of different engineering tools to solve practical problems. Sometimes we refer to this as molecular systems engineering, building functional devices from the molecular level up. Undergraduate students will find employment, if they seek it, in biotech, electronics, materials science and many others areas, and they will also be sought after for graduate school.

cosmotravella1 karma

Hi. How much longer before we can harness the mechanical energy present in our clothing?

Justinhsb2 karma

There is already a lot of work going on in making clothing that has more functions than simply covering us and keeping us warm. Mostly this has to do with sensing what’s going on in our bodies physiologically, heart rate, blood pressure, etc. However, I feel certain that this type of application will expand rapidly in the next five years.

iceit123451 karma

What is the role of government in IME's mission to solve societal problems? Is there an optimal political climate for IME?

Justinhsb2 karma

As I just answered to Nuclear_Football, government funding, as well as industrial funding and philanthropy, all play a very important role in helping IME achieve its mission of useful new technologies for society.

Panda_Muffins1 karma

Prof. Tirrell,

Thank you for making an AMA! I have a question about the molecular engineering program and IME as a whole at the University of Chicago/Argonne.

With the University of Chicago being such a world renowned institution and Argonne being a high-caliber national laboratory, what efforts are made at IME to be "competitive" with other top research programs in the country? For instance, does IME focus on hiring already well-established professors in their fields to bolster the program? Surely starting a new program and attracting excellent professors and students is no trivial task.

In addition, what is the motivation for IME being called, well, an institute of "molecular engineering" instead of something like chemical and materials engineering?

As an aside, I was admitted last year, although I didn't have a chance to visit. Nonetheless, I have heard and continue to hear great things about the program and research at IME. In fact, a post about work by Prof. Juan de Pablo is one of the top posts of all time at r/science!

Thank you for your time, and I look forward to inevitably crossing paths with IME as I further my education and career!

Edit: I see your question about the molecular engineering name has been recently answered.

Justinhsb2 karma

We did start by hiring experienced faculty, but this year we are concentrating on hiring assistant professors. We’d like a broad and diverse faculty, including in its age demographic. We want IME to be an enduring new model for broad-based engineering education and research

tmorrissey1 karma

What kind of research and apps is the IME working on at the molecular level to add to the DOE's recent grant to Argonne to help update the electrical grid?

Justinhsb3 karma

IME has not been specifically involved in this project yet, but IME at Argonne has a broad array of materials science expertise that Argonne can draw on for many new applications.

Sasha_Thumper1 karma

Can you use molecular engineering to create nanoparticles that target and kill diseases?

Justinhsb1 karma

That's a great question. I addressed something very similar to gameofchance. What do you think?