Alumni gift helps new faculty expand early research

// Chemical & Biological Engineering

Tags: alumni, CBE, Faculty, faculty support, gift, Jay and Cynthia Ihlenfeld Faculty Scholarship, morgridge match, Reid Van Lehn

Reid Van Lehn
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Alumni gifts can make a substantial difference in the early careers of professors, who often struggle to find funding for their fresh ideas. For Reid Van Lehn, an assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering, receiving a gift allows him to directly further the goals of his lab.

Van Lehn recently received the Jay and Cynthia Ihlenfeld Faculty Scholarship. This prestigious gift was established through the Morgridge match, a major gift from UW-Madison alumni John and Tashia Morgridge that provided a one-to-one match for any donor making a professorship gift.

The scholarship, after the match, is worth $1 million, and was donated by the Ihlenfelds, alumni with longstanding connections to UW-Madison. Jay is a chemical and biological engineering alumnus and Cynthia is a business grad. Jay and Van Lehn also happen to be alumni of the same fraternity—Phi Delta Theta.

Van Lehn, who joined the chemical and biological engineering faculty in spring 2016, focuses on surface chemistry and drug delivery. And though he is only just beginning his research, the funding has allowed him to expand his goals.

“One of the great things about this gift is that it’s not attached to a federal grant, so it means I can take risks, and take on new projects, and there’s not a direct line to prior success that I need to demonstrate,” he says.

An avenue of research he’s looking to pursue involves integrating multi-simulation approaches via machine learning to design new biomaterials.

“Machine learning allows us to pick up correlations in large data sets, where it’s difficult to identify the effect of changing one variable at a time in a controlled fashion,” he says. “By combining many inputs and outputs in a model, we can identify trends showing how changing a parameter can affect biological outcomes, that we wouldn’t be able to pick up by other means.”

For Van Lehn, who doesn’t have substantial experience in the subject, machine learning is an uncharted methodology that could provide interesting implications for the design of new materials.

Overall, the gift allows Van Lehn to build a solid foundation for his lab, and to consider new possibilities for ongoing research.

“Particularly when you’re a young faculty member, these gifts can have a large impact,” he says. “It’s the difference between being able to fund a graduate student and not being able to fund one, so it really helps further the goals of my research group.”

Author: Lexy Brodt