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Chemical Engineering changes name to Chemical and Biological Engineering

Chemistry and biology come together for UW-Madison engineers

If you're like many people, the term "chemical engineering" conjures up images of oil refineries and large chemical plants. But chemical engineers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and elsewhere are increasingly turning their attention to elaborate "chemical factories" whose volume can be measured in quadrillionths of a liter — living cells and other biological systems.

James B. Rawlings

James B. Rawlings (large image)

As a result, the UW-Madison Department of Chemical Engineering which has been ranked among the top chemical engineering departments in the country for the better part of its 98-year history, has changed its name to "Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering." "The change reflects an increase in the scope of the discipline, and brings our name in line with research and instructional efforts in the department," says professor and department chair, James B. Rawlings. "It also will increase the visibility of the department and our graduates in the biological sciences community."

Virus growing

Of the 18 faculty members in the department, 12 have research projects with strong biological components, while four focus their research efforts entirely on life sciences. Pictured above, postdoctoral researcher Karen Duca (left) and Associate Professor and Cargill Faculty Fellow John Yin prepare to grow viruses. Yin is studying how genetic information in viruses helps them grow. (large image)

Today, more than one-third of department graduates find jobs in the food and pharmaceutical industries, while an increasing number of those employed in the chemical, consumer products and energy industries are finding life sciences applications in their work as well. Of the 18 faculty members in the department, 12 have research projects with strong biological components, while four focus their research efforts entirely on life sciences.

The department has a long history of activity in the biological sciences. In the mid-1940s, Wisconsin graduates from the departments of chemical engineering and biochemistry played a prominent role worldwide in the development of industrial-scale fermentation processes for the production of antibiotics. Since then, chemical engineers have continued to develop processes for using microorganisms on an industrial-scale to synthesize a number of industrial chemicals, food products and pharmaceuticals.

"During the last 25 years, with the dramatic growth of molecular biology, the frontiers of biological engineering have shifted from the industrial scale down to the nanometer scale," says John Yin, associate professor of chemical engineering at UW-Madison, whose research on virus-cell interactions advances through collaborations with biologists, chemists, and systems engineers. By combining the new tools of molecular biology with tools used to design and optimize industrial processes, chemical engineers are making novel contributions to the understanding of biological processes and systems at the molecular level. They are also making use of this new knowledge to develop rational approaches to intervene in those processes, either for medical purposes or to achieve novel ends such as the breakdown of environmental toxins. And they are working to develop non-biological technologies that mimic life processes, such as detectors for toxins or microorganisms, methods for targeted delivery of drugs or genes, or engineered molecules that self-assemble into functional materials.

"The impact of biological advances on human health, agriculture, industry and the environment will increasingly depend upon contributions from a new breed of scientists and engineers — ones who speak the languages of chemistry and biology, who can express and explore ideas in quantitative and computable terms, and who thrive on the challenges and rewards of engineering complex systems," says Yin. "Clearly, chemical engineers — or perhaps I should say chemical and biological engineers — can play a significant role toward advancing this new frontier."