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ICE Trains New Breed of Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci
Susan Roberts

What would happen if Leonardo da Vinci, the prototype of the Renaissance person, were alive today? He would probably be a cellular engineer. Cellular engineering is the new frontier in applied biology that integrates research across disciplines such as animal science, biology, chemical engineering, chemistry, microbiology, physics, and polymer science. Within the Institute for Cellular Engineering (ICE) at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, more than 34 faculty members and 40 graduate students from 11 departments and interdisciplinary graduate programs across campus are busy creating a new breed of Leonardo.

The stated goal of ICE is hardly a modest one. ICE plans to revolutionize the way cellular scientists and engineers think about their fundamental approach to manipulating cells. Then the institute aims to mainline these radical thinkers directly into some of the country’s most influential academic institutions, research hospitals, government laboratories, and leading biotech, pharmaceutical, and medical diagnostic companies.

The key to ICE is a new approach to interdisciplinary learning. “We’re trying to train people to think differently,” says ICE Director Susan Roberts, a professor in the Chemical Engineering Department. “We want our students to effectively integrate different disciplines. So, when they eventually work in industry or academia, they’ll be solving research problems from a completely different perspective, generating new kinds of solutions. They will be looking at a bigger, more complete picture.”

ICE is practicing interdisciplinary research and graduate training at the crossroads of engineering, physical sciences, and the life sciences. ICE faculty are internationally renowned in the fields of systems biology, genomics, stem cell science, plant biotechnology, biopolymer science, protein engineering, and other disciplines vital to cellular engineering.

ICE research projects deal with pressing societal issues, such as the generation of artificial organs and tissues, production of biologic pharmaceuticals, design of targeted drug delivery systems, generation of plant-derived fuels, and processes to clean up contaminated wastewater and soils.

The standard bearers at ICE are the 11 fellows currently receiving annual $30,000 stipends from the NSF Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) program. Two years ago, ICE received a $3-million grant from IGERT that will eventually provide 25 graduate students (11 now and 14 in the future) with fellowships, training, and hands-on research opportunities. IGERT also features an associate membership program in which more than 30 doctoral candidates, enrolled in affiliated life sciences or engineering programs at UMass Amherst, have participated in all IGERT curricular activities.

In just two years, ICE IGERT has implemented a novel curriculum, including new graduate courses, lab modules, and graduate seminars. The foundation course, entitled “Fundamentals of Cellular Engineering,” epitomizes ICE’s interdisciplinary strength with a lineup of 15 faculty, who team-teach this fall course. Students experience a broad “crash course” in cellular engineering in a powerful environment for peer and faculty networking. Lab modules are the bread and butter of the program. Emulating a professional workshop, a lab module showcases a particular technique in a small, hands-on course. To date, 10 lab modules have been offered for topics such as fluorescence microscopy, drug delivery, cell culture, anaerobic systems microbiology, polymerase chain reaction, and automated plant transformations.

Beyond its effect on industry, fueling it through a pipeline of Renaissance cellular engineers, IGERT will also have a profound effect on higher education. The NSF IGERT program is intended to catalyze a cultural change in graduate education for students, faculty, and institutions. IGERT does so by establishing innovative new models for graduate education in which students train in a fertile environment for collaborative research that transcends traditional disciplinary boundaries.

“I think the NSF IGERT program is focused on changing the mindset of graduate education,” says Roberts. “And, yes, part of that will happen by placing ICE graduates with more progressive thinking into academic positions.”