Rice U. announces $82 million in strategic research initiatives

Faculty, programs will expand in neuroengineering, synthetic biology, physical biology

Rice University will expand its faculty and invest in graduate programs in neuroengineering, synthetic biology and physical biology thanks to an $82 million investment in strategic initiatives aimed at propelling already strong programs to global preeminence.

“Rice is uniquely positioned to excel in neuroengineering, synthetic biology and physical biology,” Rice President David Leebron said. “We have ambitious faculty doing outstanding research in each area. We’re also part of the world’s largest medical center, and interdisciplinary collaboration is an essential part of Rice’s success in this important work.”

BioScience Research Collaborative

Rice University’s BioScience Research Collaborative (Photo by Brandon Martin/Rice University)

Leebron said the initiatives approved by Rice’s Board of Trustees will allow the university to add 10 new faculty members, build out research space in the BioScience Research Collaborative and add programmatic support. The first new hires are expected to arrive at Rice next summer, he said.

Rice 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, a vast complex of more than 50 biomedical research institutions adjacent to Rice’s campus.

“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.”

She said neuroengineering, synthetic biology and physical biology are areas where dozens of Rice faculty members already work closely with partners, often on questions that cannot be answered by experts from a single field. That kind of interdisciplinary research has been a hallmark of Rice partnerships since the university’s chemical engineers teamed with surgeons in 1965 to make the first artificial heart.

Marie Lynn Miranda

Rice University Provost Marie Lynn Miranda (Photo by Tommy LaVergne/Rice University)

“Our greatest opportunities are often in deeply interdisciplinary endeavors,” Miranda said. “As we showed with nanotechnology in the 1990s and more recently with materials science and data science, targeted investments can pay enormous dividends for Rice if we move quickly, produce innovative results and establish ourselves as leaders. That is precisely what we intend to do in neuroengineering, synthetic biology and physical biology.”

She said elevating graduate training is a central focus for each of the initiatives.

“Graduate students account for about 42 percent of our student body,” Miranda said. “Great graduate students are attracted by the best faculty, and top faculty want to work at schools with great graduate students. With neuroengineering, synthetic biology and physical biology, we have the opportunity to build extraordinary programs that enhance our reputation as a premier choice for graduate training. At the same time, all three of these investments will create outstanding research opportunities for our very talented undergraduates.”

Rice’s doctoral program in Systems, Synthetic and Physical Biology (SSPB), which launched in 2012, is among Rice’s most successful, as are the graduate and postgraduate training programs of Rice’s NSF-funded Center for Theoretical Biological Physics. The majority of Rice’s neuroengineering trainees are Ph.D. students in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE). Miranda said she expects Rice’s investment in neuroengineering to boost ECE’s national rankings, and she said all three initiatives will have a notable impact across many Rice departments.

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. Rice’s efforts in neuroengineering, including faculty searches, are led by Behnaam Aazhang, the J.S. Abercrombie Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

Collage of research images

Rice University is investing $82 million in strategic research initiatives aimed at cementing its position as a world leader in the fields of neuroengineering, synthetic biology and physical biology.

Synthetic biology is a field dedicated to bringing predictability to the design of biological systems. Using programmable biological parts and genetic circuits, synthetic biologists seek to create organisms that can transform medicine, manufacturing, energy, agriculture and more. Rice’s efforts in synthetic biology, including faculty searches, are co-led by Gang Bao, the Foyt Family Professor of Bioengineering and professor of chemistry, and Joff Silberg, professor of biosciences and of bioengineering.

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. Rice’s efforts in physical biology, including faculty searches, are co-led by José Onuchic, the Harry C. and Olga K. Wiess Professor of Physics and Astronomy and professor of chemistry and of biochemistry and cell biology, and Lydia Kavraki, the Noah Harding Professor of Computer Science and professor of bioengineering, of electrical and computer engineering and of mechanical engineering.

Rice is a member of the Association of American Universities, a group of 62 leading U.S. research universities that earn the majority of competitively awarded federal funding for academic research and award more than half of all U.S. doctoral degrees in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and social sciences, yet make up only 8 percent of all four-year Ph.D.-granting universities.

Rice’s initiatives in neuroengineering and in synthetic and physical biology align with several V2C2 goals, including building nationally and internationally renowned graduate programs, investing in faculty to achieve preeminence and elevating research achievement and reputation. For more information, visit v2c2.rice.edu.

About Jade Boyd

Jade Boyd is science editor and associate director of news and media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.