20th Anniversary Symposium a Time for Reflection and Renewal

Images: (left) Aerial view of the Beckman Institute site, 1962. (center) Beckman Institute south walkway, 2008. (right) Arnold Beckman visits the Institute construction site.
Images: (left) Aerial view of the Beckman Institute site, 1962. (center) Beckman Institute south walkway, 2008. (right) Arnold Beckman visits the Institute construction site.

The impact of research that has taken place inside the walls of the Beckman Institute over the past 20 years has been felt in the fields of technology, neuroscience, human cognition, and medicine. It has helped to make electronic devices more efficient and medical instruments more effective, improved the quality of life for older adults and the quality of products for manufacturers, and advanced our knowledge of science in a wide variety of the disciplines studied at the University of Illinois.

Former Directors, Researchers Return for Event; Nobel Laureate Susumu Tonegawa Symposium Keynote Speaker

The impact of research that has taken place inside the walls of the Beckman Institute over the past 20 years has been felt in the fields of technology, neuroscience, human cognition, and medicine. It has helped to make electronic devices more efficient and medical instruments more effective, improved the quality of life for older adults and the quality of products for manufacturers, and advanced our knowledge of science in a wide variety of the disciplines studied at the University of Illinois.

Research at Beckman has, in short, been as successful as the people who envisioned and funded an interdisciplinary research center at Illinois hoped it would be. What happens in the next twenty years could leave a larger footprint in the world of science.

Paul Braun has been at Beckman as a postdoctoral researcher or faculty member for 15 of the Institute’s 20 years and is co-chair of the “Visions for the Future” session of the Beckman Institute’s 20th Anniversary Symposium, set for Oct. 5-7. Braun thinks that future depends on the Institute being as leading-edge in the next 20 years in the way it does science as it was 20 years ago when Beckman helped pioneer the concept of interdisciplinary research.

“The Institute is a really interesting place to not only do new science but to think about new ways to do science,” Braun said. “In the next 20 years there is significant potential that the Institute can be a leader in doing that.”

Braun said the formation of three research themes in 1994 helped solidify the concept of interdisciplinary research into something tangible. After a few years, those broad themes started to include results produced by researchers from diverse disciplines working together in new ways addressing new topics.

“In some sense I think the Institute can declare victory,” Braun said. “Which leads me to think about well, what’s next? The Institute could continue to do this kind of work very well and probably will. But this may also be an opportunity to say ‘can we at the Institute lead the science on how to do science?’”

The Institute’s future directions, as well as its research history and current efforts will be explored during the Beckman Institute’s 20th Anniversary Symposium. The Symposium will be the scientific bookend to a nearly year-long celebration of the people and the science that have made for two decades of successful interdisciplinary research at the Beckman Institute.

Twenty years may seem like a long time in the nanosecond world of science we live in today. But for people like Karl Hess who were part of the founding of the Beckman Institute, the events surrounding the building and the opening of the Beckman Institute are still vivid in his mind.

“I still can see the huge hole in the ground that is now the basement of the building and I remember the improvised on-site office that Ted Brown used to direct the project,” Hess said. “I remember the progress reports to Dr. Beckman and his kindness and, of course, the big opening ceremony with presentations in the Krannert center and a dinner in the atrium of the Institute.”

That dinner and other opening events were held in the first week of April 1989, less than three years after the announcement of Arnold and Mabel Beckman’s $40M gift toward building of the Beckman Institute at the University of Illinois. In April of this year a celebratory event was held to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the official opening. In October the scientific research that lies at the heart of the Beckman mission will be the focus, with the symposium featuring world-renowned scientists from the Institute and across the United States.

It will bring together many of the people who helped make groundbreaking research happen at Beckman over the past 20 years, including former and present Beckman researchers, all three of the Institute’s former Directors,  as well as a Nobel Laureate for the keynote address.

“The participation in this event of so many of the people who have helped make or are still helping to make the Beckman Institute what it is testifies to the value of the work that goes on here,” said Interim Institute Director Tamer Başar.

The list of keynote speakers reflects the truly interdisciplinary nature of research at the Beckman Institute, as they come from varied disciplines in the biological and physical sciences.

The opening keynote lecture on Monday, Oct. 5, will be given by Susumu Tonegawa, who won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1987 for his discovery of the genetic principle for generation of antibody diversity. Tonegawa is a leading researcher in the genetic, cellular, and neural system mechanisms that underlie cognitive functions.

"The Institute could continue to do this kind of work very well and probably will. But this may also be an opportunity to say ‘can we at the Institute lead the science on
how to do science?’”
- Beckman faculty member Paul Braun on the Beckman Institute’s 20th Anniversary Symposium

Tuesday’s keynote speaker is Dr. Thomas R. Insel, Director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Insel has been NIMH Director since 2002, a position where he oversees a budget of $1.3B per year. He has served as a professor of psychiatry and director of the Center for Behavioral Neuroscience at Emory University. Insel is a leading researcher in the area of obsessive-compulsive disorder.

The keynote address for Wednesday’s final day of the symposium will be delivered by Charles M. Lieber, the Mark Hyman Professor of Chemistry at Harvard University. Lieber’s research at Harvard takes an interdisciplinary approach to nanoscale science and technology topics, using what he describes as a “bottom-up paradigm” to assemble “virtually any kind of device or functional system, ranging from ultra-sensitive medical sensors to powerful nanocomputers.”

A reception will be held on Monday, followed by welcoming remarks by Başar and Tonegawa’s opening keynote lecture. Tuesday’s events will feature Insel’s talk, followed by a retrospective with Beckman Institute Founding Director Ted Brown and his successors, Jiri Jonas and Pierre Wiltzius. The afternoon session will provide a look back at research milestones and reflections from Beckman alumni such as Hess.
Wednesday’s Symposium will be led off by Lieber’s address, then feature perspectives from each of the four research themes at the Institute. It will be followed by “Visions for the Future” talks by Beckman researchers John Rogers, Todd Coleman, and Gene Robinson.

“There is great potential for the Institute,” Braun said. “The key is to not let this become stale in the sense that we still do this work better than other people. But the rest of the world is realizing that we have the right model. Now is the time for us to do the next thing. Hopefully that will be some of the discussions that come up during the “Visions for the Future.”

Hess will be speaking about research milestones at the Institute. He said understanding Beckman’s past is essential for its future success.
“The history of the Institute contains the key for its continual renewal,” he said.

Braun said looking forward is also essential.

“The Institute is a great place to try new ways to do science,” Braun said. “I don’t know that I have the answer (as to how) but this is the perfect laboratory for doing that.”

This article is part of the Fall 2009 Synergy Issue, a publication of the Communications Office of the Beckman Institute.