Rice Announces $82M Research Initiative

Funding targets neuroengineering, synthetic biology and physical biology

images representing neuroengineering, synthetic biology and physical biology

Provost Marie Lynn Miranda said two recurring themes in the strategic planning process that produced Rice’s Vision for the Second Century, Second Decade (V2C2) were the need to establish globally recognized programs and to strengthen local ties, including those with the Texas Medical Center. “Our strategy is to build where we think we can achieve excellence,” Miranda said. “That will serve as a magnet to researchers from a wide variety of institutions.”

Neuroengineering, synthetic biology and physical biology are areas where many Rice faculty members already work closely with partners, often on questions that cannot be answered by experts from a single field, Miranda said. She also said elevating graduate training — graduate students are 42 percent of Rice’s student body — is a central focus for each of the initiatives. “Great graduate students are attracted by the best faculty, and top faculty want to work at schools with great graduate students. At the same time, all three of these investments will create outstanding research opportunities for our very talented undergraduates.”

Neuroengineering is a discipline that exploits engineering techniques to understand, repair and manipulate human neural systems and networks for the betterment of the estimated 1 billion people worldwide who suffer from disorders of the nervous system. Behnaam Aazhang, the J.S. Abercrombie Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, will lead this area.

Synthetic biology brings predictability to the design of biological systems. Synthetic biologists seek to create organisms that can transform medicine, manufacturing, energy, agriculture and more. Gang Bao, the Foyt Family Professor of Bioengineering and professor of chemistry, and Joff Silberg, professor of biosciences and of bioengineering, will lead this initiative.

Physical biology seeks to describe and anticipate the properties and behaviors of biological molecules and systems by integrating biology with theoretical physics and chemistry, mathematics and computer science. Leading faculty are José Onuchic, the Harry C. and Olga K. Wiess Professor of Physics and Astronomy, and Lydia Kavraki, the Noah Harding Professor of Computer Science.

— Jade Boyd