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Bashir wants research to have an impact

Rashid Bashir made a dream come true by earning a Ph.D. in electrical engineering but soon started taking classes in biology and chemistry to fulfill another goal: doing research in nanotechnology and biomedicine that has a beneficial impact on people.

Published on March 28, 2012

Like any good professor, Rashid Bashir wants to pass on what he’s learned to students. That goes for both imparting knowledge of science and engineering to the students in his lab, and for passing on his experience when it comes to career choices.

Bashir, who is the Director of the Micro and Nanotechnology Technology Laboratory (MNTL) and a Beckman Institute affiliate with many ties here, grew up in Pakistan. He came to America as a teenager with a clear vision of his future: engineering.

“I was always taught from the beginning when I was growing up to be an engineer and build things,” Bashir said. “I remember my dad talking to me at that time about inventors and scientists, and Microsoft and Apple and all that was coming about in the 1980s.”

Bashir made that vision come true with a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Purdue, a Silicon Valley job in chip manufacturing, and finally, a return to academia in what became a tenured faculty position in engineering at Purdue. But Bashir also had an interest in biology, specifically, the rapidly growing field where nanotechnology and biomedicine intersect.

“The last semester of my Ph.D., I took some bioengineering courses and I just got turned on with biology and said ‘this is what I really want to be doing over the years,’” he said.

The last semester of my Ph.D., I took some bioengineering courses and I just got turned on with biology and said ‘this is what I really want to be doing over the years.'
– Rashid Bashir

Later, with a Ph.D. and a job at famed National Semiconductor in California, Bashir took classes in biology and organic chemistry befitting a college freshman. That experience is one reason why he advises students not to follow his single-minded path in college.

“I actually encourage students now to take their time to broaden out,” Bashir said. “I went through my Ph.D. pretty fast and I didn’t take any extra courses. So I encourage students to not take too long, but if they take an extra semester or two it’s not the end of the world.

“Parents don’t want to hear that,” he added with a laugh, “but make sure you get exposed to a broader set of things, what you really want to do. When I took those biology courses, that was a time when this whole field was emerging, interfacing chip technology with biology, in the last 20 years or so. And I wanted to find a way to get closer to direct human clinical impact over time.”  

When he returned to Purdue as a faculty member, Bashir devoted his academic research efforts to areas like the fabrication of micro- and nanoscale structures that have biomedical applications, such as diagnostic devices. Bashir came to the University of Illinois to become Director of MNTL and take advantage of the opportunities offered on campus at places like Beckman to do truly interdisciplinary, translational research.

“This last century could be considered the century of electronics and this new century is, some people would say, the century of biology and medicine,” Bashir said. “I’m interested in using nanotechnology, specifically being able to fabricate or build structures at the micro- and nanoscale in silicon, and using biological materials for medical and clinical applications.

“The next level of detail there might be that I am interested in developing diagnostic devices that can be used at a point-of-test: to be able to take a drop of body fluid, blood for example, and count the white blood cells, or detect bacteria, or viruses.”

Bashir has a second important focus in his research group on building with biological materials.

“It all got started after I moved here to Illinois, where we want to build with cells and build with biological materials,” he said. “So those are the two areas: developing chip-based diagnostics for point-of-care and building with biological materials such as cells.”

Bashir, who is the Abel Bliss Professor of Engineering in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Department of Bioengineering, has research collaborations with Beckman colleagues such as Aleksei Aksimentiev, Narayana Aluru, and Gabriel Popescu. He also often uses the facilities in Beckman’s Microscopy Suite and Visualization Laboratory.

In addition, Bashir has numerous collaborations with faculty from other campus departments and his research group includes Ph.D. students from Electrical and Computer Engineering, Mechanical Science, Bioengineering, Biophysics, and Materials Science. The opportunity to do highly collaborative, interdisciplinary research is a big reason Bashir came to Illinois.

I’m interested in moving the field forward. That’s the end goal, to do something that advances the science and engineering, and also do something that has an impact.
– Rashid Bashir

“The kind of work we are doing, which is this interface and integration of nanotechnology and microfluidics with biomedical applications, is an area of research that is inherently interdisciplinary,” he said. “We recognize and believe that we have to have disciplinary strength and excellence, but a lot of the exciting things with applications are happening at the interface of disciplines.

“So, many of our projects do require expertise from these various disciplines, and we have a lot of faculty collaborators from around campus. I’m interested in moving the field forward. That’s the end goal, to do something that advances the science and engineering, and also do something that has an impact.”

A perfect example of interdisciplinary research with a potential impact in biomedicine is Bashir’s project involving a bandage containing living cells that promotes and guides blood vessel growth. Using what the researchers call a microvascular stamp, the bandage can pattern functional blood vessels at a scale not seen before. The project included researchers from three different departments in collaboration with MIT and Georgia Tech, and was funded by the NSF Science and Technology Center on Emergent Behavior of Integrated Cellular Systems.

“The idea is to build biological machines and the goal is to build with cells as building blocks, but not only with hard structures,” Bashir said. “Engineers have always built with hard structures, but we want to build with cells and see if we can come up with machines (with soft materials) that do different functions that are not possible today. We are building biological robots that could move and sense a toxin and deliver an agent to neutralize it, for example.” 

The other main thrust of Bashir’s research involves diagnostic applications. This includes topics such as tissue engineering, lab-on-a-chip technology, and biologically inspired materials and fabrication. One such project in collaboration with Harvard University could have a big impact on global health.

“We’re pretty excited about this chip for white blood cell count that is in the process of being commercialized,” Bashir said. “Now we are working on the next generation of those technologies and also working on ways to detect viruses, for example, so that we can detect bacteria and viruses at point-of-care.

“That could be very powerful for global health, if you could take a drop of blood and within a matter of a few minutes detect the presence of specific types of white blood cells or target pathogens.”

The contributions of Bashir’s research group to his collaborations with Beckman researchers include doing fabrication and computer modeling work in projects with Aksimentiev and Aluru. In the collaboration with Popescu, they developed a microsensor that gave unprecedented insight into the biologically important question of the relation between a cell’s mass and its growth rate.

“We have a method for measuring the mass of whole cells in fluid by using a resonant technique where we make a tiny silicon pedestal that vibrates,” Bashir said. “By measuring the resonant frequency we can extract the mass of the cell. Popescu has a technique in which he can do that optically, so we are working on combining those two techniques, where we can do resonance-based mass sensing and he can do an optical-based dry cell mass.

“So when the cell grows, how does the mass change? That’s important to understand, whether it’s being driven by the amount of the ribosomal machinery or is limited by the amount of available DNA for transcription.”

At Illinois Bashir has been instrumental is leading a push for center grants, with four earned in the past two years. On some of those grants he is the principal investigator, including an NSF IGERT training grant for cell mechanics and nanotechnology and an NIH training grant in cancer nanotechnology.

Bashir has won many honors over the years, including an NSF Early Career Award while at Purdue.  In December of 2011 he was chosen for one of the highest honors given to scientists and engineers when he was elected as a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). 

“That was a great honor.” Bashir said. “AAAS puts the responsibility on us to advance science and communicate those advances and increase the awareness of science to the public.”

All of which Bashir is doing in his multiple roles as researcher, teacher, and administrator. And he believes combining roles and bringing together disciplines is the best way for science to make a difference in the world.   

“I would like to make an impact,” Bashir said. “There is such a need to address grand challenges facing the world at large and I would like to do my part by applications of micro- and nanotechnology in biology and medicine.”               

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  • Rashid Bashir
    Rashid Bashir's directory photo.