Centered on Collaboration

Monday, June 4, 2018

Perhaps not surprisingly, Bridget Queenan, associate director of the UCSB Brain Initiative, has a “brainy” metaphor for how UCSBs many research centers and institutes work. 

On a sketch of a human brain, she maps the areas responsible for specialized functions — vision, smell, touch, and so on. She then points to the regions between, called ”association areas.” 

Because specialization is so valuable, Queenan says, “You wouldn’t want to get rid of it and say, ‘OK, the visual part of your brain is doing too much vision stuff.’ Instead, brains have evolved association areas, which take information from multiple specialized areas to solve problems that require more than, say, just vision or just hearing. 

In the university parallel, she adds, “You have departments that specialize, and the people in them are experts who can make each other better. You don’t want to get rid of that and force the Chemical Engineering Department to become the Physics Department. But some problems are unwieldy, and to solve them, you have to create a place where anyone from any department can meet to pursue a common interest. Centers pull different specializations together in new and unexpected ways.”

UCSB engineering and the sciences is home to many such focal-point centers and institutes. Each has its own identity, focus, and way of operating. Quite a few overlap, and all foster collaborations that benefit faculty, provide outstanding training for students, develop industry links, and generate better science. Here are a few examples of the nearly twenty centers for engineering and science on campus. Keep in mind that each is far more complex and connected than we have space to describe here. To see a list of all the centers in the College of Engineering, go to engineering.ucsb.edu/research/research-centers.

Some, like the Center for Control, Dynamical Systems, and Computation (CCDC), have a fairly informal structure but are nonetheless tremendously successful, as witnessed by the College of Engineering’s No. 3 world ranking in automation and control. 

For many projects in his field, says CCDC director and professor of electrical and computer engineering, Andrew Teel, “Long-term success requires a confluence of people who have many different ideas, talents, and strengths, and within the center, we have all those people.”

The main priority at CCDC is to provide graduate students with a sense of community, to help them investigate possible research paths when they arrive, develop and navigate a suitable course of study, and make it easy while they are working on a problem to meet others outside their lab who may be working on related problems. 

Another type of entity is the Materials Research Laboratory (MRL), directed by Professor Ram Seshadri, who has appointments in materials, chemistry, and biochemistry. MRL recently received its sixth consecutive multi-million-dollar grant as a National Science Foundation Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC). Se­shadri notes that the lab is one of the two most productive in terms of papers published.

MRL epitomizes how resources are leveraged at UCSB to benefit the many, most notably in its inventory of advanced equipment and instruments. “It’s one facility and it’s seamless, and it doesn’t matter who you work for on campus, you can use those facilities on a recharge basis,” says chemical engineering professor and regular MRL collaborator Glenn Fredrickson. “And we have professional scientists who will train the students how to use the equipment and interpret the results of experiments run on it.”

Kaila Mattson (PhD ’16), a scientist at Dow Chemical in Midland, Michigan, who had an office in MRL while at UCSB, reflects that. “MRL was transformative, personally and scientifically,” she says. “It is a truly fantastic place to conduct research and grow as a scientist. Collaboration is not just encouraged at MRL; it’s expected.”

Kristin Denault (PhD ‘15) is another alumna who was housed in the MRL as a graduate student studying the crystal structures of phosphor materials. Through an Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) fellowship, she was encouraged to take classes in the entrepreneurially focused UCSB Technology Management Program (TMP). An entrepreneur was born: she tied for second place in the 2014 TMP New Venture Competition, and today runs her own startup in Santa Barbara, Fluency Lighting Technologies, which is “working to develop next-generation energy-efficient lighting sources.”

“Being a part of MRL opened my eyes to opportunities after grad school that I didn’t even know existed, one of them being to start a tech company,” she says. 

Materials mix (from right): Professor Craig Hawker examines a solution with Assistant Professor Chris Bates and PhD student Yvonne Diaz, who is co-advised by Hawker and chemistry professor Javier Read de Alaniz. Photograph by Matt Perko

Materials professor Craig Hawker leads the California NanoSystems Institute (CNSI), which supports a combination of entrepreneurial and outreach programs, and serves as an incubator for both start-up businesses and large research collaborations, with partners such as TMP and the UCSB Office of Research. CNSI now also has what Hawker describes as “the only wet lab incubator space on the Central Coast,” adding, “It is really fostering an ecosystem. That’s the point about centers at UCSB. We all contribute something, and UCSB entrepreneurial programs really address startup companies that need lab space that isn’t available anywhere else.”

Like MRL, CNSI maintains its own trove of shared top-of-the-line equipment, and together, the two operate the Center for Scientific Computing (CSC), UCSB’s high-performance computing center in Elings Hall.

The Mitsubishi Chemical Center for Advanced Materials (MCCAM), directed by Glenn Fredrickson, is built on a long-term industry partnership with Mitsubishi Chemical Corporation to develop new market-driven materials, especially polymers, Fredrickson’s specialization. The result for Mitsubishi is access to patentable market-driven materials it needs, while UCSB gets millions of dollars in annual research support, and graduate-student researchers get to work with industry before they graduate. 

One long-running center project involves developing organic electronic materials, particularly for flexible electronics. Fredrickson explains that chemistry and materials professor Gui Bazan makes the “conjugated polymers,” chemical engineering professor and department chair, Rachel Segalman, and others characterize and optimize the materials, chemistry professor Quyen Nguyen studies their electrical properties, and emeritus physics professor Alan Heeger tests their performance in transistor devices.

PhD students at work in the new BioEngineering lab. Photograph by Matt Perko

“We have people with appointments in chemistry, materials, chemical engineering, and physics all pulling together,” says Fredrickson. 
The Center for BioEngineering (CBE) occupies the new Bio-Engineering building, which houses professors and graduate students from all five CoE departments and two faculty members from chemistry and biochemistry, while involving faculty from several other areas. “It’s a mixture of people like [chemistry professor] Irene Chen and me, who are chemists trained as biologists, and then every flavor of engineer,” says center director Kevin Plaxco. 

Researchers affiliated with the CBE tend to work on one of two main tracks, which Plaxco describes as “engineering for biology and engineering from biology.” The former, he says, refers to “using physical tools, such as micromechanical  devices, and the intellectual constructs of engineering, such as our understanding of control dynamics, to better understand biology.” The latter refers to “using the materials, mechanisms, and concepts that evolution has invented to solve biology’s problems.” On both tracks, important advances result only from interdisciplinary collaboration.

The Institute for Energy Efficiency, begun in 2008 and directed by professor of electrical and computer engineering, AIM Photonics deputy CEO, and Fred Kavli Professor of Nanotechnology John Bowers, serves as a hub for research in semiconductor materials, electronics and circuits, photonics, and related fields, as a magnet for research grants directed at dramatically increasing energy efficiency and ensuring a sustainable-energy future.

“IEE is organized by solution groups, so people who are involved with similar problems meet,” says Bowers.

A new IEE building scheduled for groundbreaking in summer 2018 will have space for more than one hundred grad students and seventeen laboratories, including an experimental research data center. The data center will be of special interest to faculty in computer science, electrical and computer engineering, and mechanical engineering for projects related to the various aspects of making more-efficient data centers. 

UCSB centers and institutes are conduits for connection, stimulating dozens of collaborations every year. Their success provides a tremendous service and wide visibility for UCSB research, especially, says Glenn Fredrickson, among government funding agencies and companies who want to do big group grants. “They look at UCSB and say, ‘Wow, this is a fantastic place, with all the right people and all the right skill sets and no barriers to collaboration’” he notes. “There’s a congruence between how they operate and how we operate.”

Illustration by Peter Allen