Rein Ulijn Receives Vannevar Bush Faculty Fellowship

Ulijn is the second ASRC faculty member in just two years to receive the Department of Defense’s most prestigious single-investigator award

Reijn Ulijn
Rein Ulijn, founding director of the Nanoscience Initiative at the Advance Science Research Center at The Graduate Center, CUNY and Einstein Professor of Chemistry at Hunter College


NEW YORK, May 5, 2021 — Rein Ulijn, founding director of the Nanoscience Initiative at the Advanced Science Research Center at The Graduate Center, CUNY (CUNY ASRC) and Einstein Professor of Chemistry at Hunter College, has been awarded a U.S. Department of Defense’s Vannevar Bush Faculty Fellowship — the agency’s most prestigious single-investigator award. The fellowship supports top-tier researchers at U.S. universities whose high-risk, high-reward work is of strategic importance to the Department of Defense. The five-year fellowship will provide $3 million to support Ulijn’s work to understand how complex mixtures of molecules acquire functionality, and to repurpose this understanding to create new nanotechnology that is inspired by living systems.

“I’m very excited to have been selected as a 2021 Vannevar Bush Faculty Fellow,” said Ulijn. “It’s a true honor and massive credit to my research team that the Department of Defense has chosen to support our research. The award comes at a very good time for my lab. We have made a lot of progress recently in our ability to analyze the behavior of molecules in complex mixtures using both experiments and computation. The Award will give us the critical mass to accelerate this research and the freedom to explore new directions and connections. I am excited about what lies ahead.”

The fellowship is supporting research rooted in the knowledge that all living systems are made from conserved sets of chemically simple biological building blocks. Nature’s complexity and functionality arise from the endless number of interactions between these building blocks in time and space. The molecular basis of biological functions has mostly been studied using reductionist approaches that focus on one or a small number of biological molecules at the time. Ulijn’s approach is fundamentally different because it does not start with the study of individual, known biomolecules. Instead, it begins with an unbiased, holistic study of mixtures of molecules that individually are simple and non-functional. As components of complex interacting systems, however, they give rise to functions such as chemical recognition, catalysis, energy conversion and motility. Using this method, Ulijn’s expects to identify insights that allow his team to repurpose nature’s molecules to design new functions that currently are not known in biology. The combination of complex science, biophysical chemistry and nanoscience could ultimately produce breakthrough materials and modalities with diverse applications in biomedicine, green technology and more.

“Professor Ulijn’s work expresses fearless creativity,” said Nina Gray, Graduate Center Associate Dean for the Sciences and Executive Director of the CUNY ASRC. “Evolution has created an impressive array of building blocks that don’t constrain, but inspire, his and his team members’ imaginations. With this important support from the Vannevar Bush Faculty Fellowship, Ulijn’s research will expand and refine our bio-inspired nanotechnology toolkit and understanding of systems-level networks and design. This could allow us to achieve truly novel nanomaterials for a broad range of medical, environmental and defense applications. We are enormously proud to have Professor Ulijn recognized by the Department of Defense with this honor, and only two years after another member of the ASRC, Professor Andrea Alù.”

“I am delighted that Professor Ulijn is being recognized for his pioneering research on adaptive biomimetic materials,” said Graduate Center President Robin L. Garrell. “He is the second faculty member at the CUNY ASRC, following Andrea Alù in 2019, to receive this fellowship. Their success exemplifies the impact of the ASRC as a state-of-the-art interdisciplinary research center, and demonstrates our commitment to advancing science and engineering research in areas that are of critical importance to the nation.”

The Vannevar Bush Fellowship supports out-of-the-box ideas where researcher creativity intersects with the unknown. Fellows are free to pursue unfettered research, with the results of the work informing and providing invaluable direction to the Department of Defense’s research and efforts to train the next generation of scientists and engineers.  The 2021 Class of Vannevar Bush Faculty Fellows can be found here.

About the Advanced Science Research Center

The ASRC at The Graduate Center elevates scientific research and education at CUNY and beyond through initiatives in five distinctive, but increasingly interconnected disciplines: environmental sciences, nanoscience, neuroscience, photonics, and structural biology. The ASRC promotes a collaborative, interdisciplinary research culture with renowned researchers from each of the initiatives working side-by-side in the ASRC’s core facilities, sharing equipment that is among the most advanced available.

About The Graduate Center of The City University of New York

The Graduate Center of The City University of New York (CUNY) is a leader in public graduate education devoted to enhancing the public good through pioneering research, serious learning, and reasoned debate. The Graduate Center offers ambitious students more than 40 doctoral and master’s programs of the highest caliber, taught by top faculty from throughout CUNY — the nation’s largest public urban university. Through its nearly 40 centers, institutes, and initiatives, including its Advanced Science Research Center (ASRC), The Graduate Center influences public policy and discourse and shapes innovation. The Graduate Center’s extensive public programs make it a home for culture and conversation.