Rein Ulijn, a renowned nanochemist who has been one of Europe’s rising young research stars over the past decade, has been appointed the founding director of the nanoscience initiative of CUNY’s new Advanced Science Research Center.
The announcement was made by Gillian Small, CUNY’s vice chancellor for research and the ASRC’s executive director.
Dr. Ulijn joins CUNY from the University of Strathclyde, in Glasgow, Scotland, where he ran an acclaimed nanochemistry lab and served as vice dean of research at the university. He is the third internationally recognized scientist to be named a founding director of CUNY’s new research center, which will bring together five interrelated disciplines on the frontiers of science when it opens later this year.
Dr. Ulijn, 40, is a pioneer in an area of nanoscience—the study and control of matter on atomic and molecular scales—that focuses on creating materials and systems that are inspired by biology and have unique “adaptive” properties. His lab spans the research spectrum from fundamental discovery to real-world applications. The holder of seven patents, Dr. Ulijn leads a team that has developed and commercialized gel technologies with unique properties that mimic biological environments—important discoveries for the advance of stem cell research, drug development and tissue-engineering techniques designed to interfere with disease processes.
In addition to directing the ASRC’s nanoscience initiative, Dr. Ulijn will have an academic appointment as Einstein Professor of Chemistry at Hunter College.
“The ASRC is conceived as a science building that breaks down walls between disciplines, and Rein Ulijn perfectly exemplifies the culture of collaboration and imagination we are creating,” said Vice Chancellor Small, who has overseen CUNY’s multibillion-dollar expansion of science over the past several years. “Nanoscience offers myriad opportunities for partnerships with the other ASRC initiatives, as well as with other research institutions in New York and beyond. Rein is a brilliant scientist who brings great energy and creativity to that mission.”
The ASRC, now nearing completion at the south end of the City College campus in Upper Manhattan, will be the nucleus of a University-wide research enterprise that builds on the strengths CUNY has developed in five distinct but increasingly interconnected disciplines—nanoscience, photonics, structural biology, neuroscience and environmental sciences.
“What strikes me about the ASRC is how it will create a critical mass of people and ideas for really pioneering science,” Dr. Ulijn said. “There are many cross-disciplinary buildings on the planet, and there are many nanoscience buildings. What is unique about the ASRC is its particular combination of areas. At first glance they might seem quite different, but they offer many possibilities for working together in innovative ways. The ASRC will be a catalyst for collaborations not just between the people on these five floors but for the whole CUNY system. That’s an enormous number of people who will be able to take advantage of the dynamic environment and its state-of-the-art facilities to do some fantastic science.”
CUNY Interim Chancellor William P. Kelly said Dr. Ulijn’s appointment not only brings a top-tier scientist to CUNY but advances its goals of becoming a more entrepreneurial university: “Rein Ulijn is a scientist with a reputation for extraordinary inventiveness, and his inter-disciplinary approach will be a catalyst for applied scientific research throughout CUNY for years to come.”
Dr. Ulijn has been the recipient of some of Britain’s most prestigious scientific honors, most recently the announcement this week of his induction as a fellow in the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Scotland’s academy of science and letters. Since 2004, he has been the principal investigator of research projects that have generated in excess of $10 million in grants from private and public sources, including the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research and Industry. He is the author of more than 110 peer-reviewed articles and has given more than 90 invited and keynote lectures at international conferences.
“CUNY provides an enormous opportunity for me,” Dr. Ulijn said. “It is part of a biomedical corridor in New York City that has no equal, and there are opportunities to interact with several world class institutions and people who have the enthusiasm and drive to go in new directions and get things done.”
Dr. Ulijn joins two other renowned scientists as ASRC founding directors: Charles Vörösmarty, an expert in global water issues who leads the environmental sciences initiative, and Kevin Gardner, a molecular biophysicist who heads the structural biology initiative. Searches for the directors of the two other initiatives — photonics and neuroscience — are ongoing and appointments are expected in the coming months, Dr. Small said.
Dr. Ulijn said the ASRC nanoscience initiative will be distinctive in its focus on what he described as a “systems” approach. “Our brand of nanoscience embraces complexity, in the same way that biology embraces complexity and uses it to overcome problems,” he said. “We will research new molecular technologies that are inspired by the adaptive properties of living systems but are accessible to experimental scientists. This will lead to new ways in which we can measure, influence and ultimately direct complex molecular systems such as those found in biology. This will have tremendous opportunities for the development of new ‘adaptive’ technologies for the treatment of disease, smarter manufacturing processes and health care products.
In addition to expanding on his own research, Dr. Ulijn said, he expects to form collaborations with the labs of Dr. Vörösmarty, Dr. Gardner and the neuroscience and photonics floors. “I see nanoscience as an area that can contribute to each of the other four initiatives,” he said. “Neuroscience and environmental science are clearly different disciplines but they both have complex systems at their core—collections of interacting components organized into a functional whole. So if you want to address problems in these areas it makes sense to have a technology that also thinks in terms of networks and systems. Photonics, meanwhile, will enable us to explore new ways of measuring dynamic molecular processes. And the tools of structural biology will be tremendously beneficial in, for example, our gel technology, where we take ideas from biology and simplify them to make synthetic materials.”
Born in the Netherlands, Dr. Ulijn earned a Ph.D. in physical chemistry at the University of Strathclyde, received postdoctoral training at the University of Edinburgh and was a faculty researcher at the University of Manchester. In 2008 he returned to Strathclyde and was appointed full professor at the age of 34 and later vice dean of research. In addition to his research and teaching, he is the chief scientific officer of the university spinoff company he formed, Biogelx Ltd.
In addition to his fellowship in the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Dr. Ulijn’s honors include the Norman Heatley Medal and Emerging Technologies Award, both from the Royal Society of Chemistry, the Royal Society Merit Award and the Macrogroup Young Investigator Medal. He has received personal fellowships from the European Research Council, UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and the Leverhulme Trust (Leadership Award).