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Beckman Institute 20th anniversary wrap-up

A year-long celebration of Beckman’s two decades of existence concluded in October with a scientific symposium that reunited many of the people who have made the Institute what it is today.

Published on Dec. 8, 2009

At the end of the 20th Anniversary Celebration Year, as it was for the beginning of the Beckman Institute, there was the science. Built upon the concept of an interdisciplinary approach to research, the Institute’s scientific past, present, and future were showcased during the 20th Anniversary Symposium held in October that concluded a year-long celebration of Beckman’s two decades of existence.

The past year’s events included historical and personal accounts, scientific highlights, and reunions of the many people who created and nurtured the Institute over the years. An anniversary celebration commemorating Beckman’s official opening was held in April, while the 20th Anniversary events concluded October 5-7 with a scientific symposium that included attendees from California and China, nationally-known speakers, and most of the key players who were instrumental in forming and directing the research work that goes on here.

The Symposium opened with a keynote lecture from Nobel Laureate Susumu Tonegawa and concluded with “Visions for the Future” talks from three prominent Beckman researchers. In between, Symposium attendees learned about the scientific impetus for creating a center for interdisciplinary research at the University of Illinois, as well as research milestones at the Institute and current topics in its four research themes.

Among those returning for the Symposium were Pat Beckman, daughter of Arnold and Mabel Beckman, former associate director and research theme co-chair Karl Hess, and all three of the Institute’s three previous directors, Ted Brown, Jiri Jonas, and Pierre Wiltzius. All of them gave talks during the Symposium’s second day, as did former Beckman faculty members and students.

Some of the key points delineating Beckman’s uniqueness as a research center during their talks were the fact that there is no tenure at the Institute, that the creation of three research themes in 1994 showed that research lines were maturing during its first decade, and that the creation of a new theme in 2009 demonstrates that the work is still evolving and dynamic.

Brown stated that the next generation of interdisciplinary research needs to be more aggressive and that the ideas that gave birth to the Beckman Institute are still valid but need to be updated. He said the research future also needs to include rapid follow-through from discovery to applications, and researchers who understand the social as well as scientific implications of their discoveries.

The first day also included a look at Beckman research milestones, as well as a tribute to Arnold Beckman and reflections from former students who experienced interdisciplinary research while working at the Institute before going on to careers in business, government, and academia. One of the former students, University of California-San Diego Psychology Professor Vic Ferreira, spoke on the second day and said that he “would never have had the career he has had were it not for Beckman.

“It seems to encourage people to think big thoughts,” Ferreira added.

The third and final day of the Symposium featured a look at the research themes, with highlights provided by theme co-chairs and a researcher from each theme talking about their current work. The “Visions for the Future” talks that concluded the Symposium gave insight into where future research trends are headed.

Beckman faculty member Gene Robinson talked about a second genomic revolution as he said science has gone from the library to the Internet, and is now embarking on a second genomic revolution built on the first one involving the sequencing of genomes. Robinson said the second genomic revolution will be based on the ability to sequence a whole genome for less than $1,000 and, in his research area, the future capability of sequencing bee genomes for $99 or less.

John Rogers of the 3-D Micro- and Nanosystems group envisioned future research involving skin-like electronics and stretchable silicon with rubber substrates for medical and other applications. Todd Coleman of the Artificial Intelligence group discussed future brain-machine interfaces for controlling computers with brain waves, and talked about building artificial intelligent systems such as affordable neuro-morphic supercomputers.

The Symposium had more than 200 attendees during its three days, with Xiaoping Li of the University of Singapore probably coming the farthest distance. Li said he was a visiting scientist who decided to extend his trip specifically in order to attend the symposium.

The Symposium ended with a call to have another celebration of Beckman Institute research – in 20 years.