Beckman Institute welcomes Diao and Barbey as research theme co-chairs


University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign researchers Ying Diao and Aron Barbey have been named co-chairs of the institute’s Molecular Science and Engineering and Intelligent Systems research themes.

Ying Diao (left) and Aron Barbey (right)
Ying Diao (left) and Aron Barbey (right)

The Beckman Institute is pleased to welcome research theme co-chairs Ying Diao, chemical and biomolecular engineering professor, and Aron Barbey, a professor of psychology, neuroscience, and bioengineering, at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. With expertise spanning from neuroscience to nanotechnology and a desire to address grand environmental, medical, and scientific challenges, they will continue pushing the boundaries of Beckman’s interdisciplinary mission.

Diao was named co-chair of the Molecular Science and Engineering research theme. She replaces Professor Narayana Aluru, current Richard W. Kritzer Distinguished Professor in the Department of Mechanical Science and Engineering at Illinois, and a Beckman faculty member in the Computational Molecular Science group.

Molecular assembly is the focus of Diao’s research. By studying how individual molecules unite to form materials and collectively perform a function, Diao can ‘nudge’ them in the right direction, reorganizing the microscopic building blocks to design materials of her own.

Already, Diao has several innovations to her name. In 2016, she was named an “Innovator under 35” by MIT Technology Review for using molecular assembly to manufacture solar cells: clingy enough to stick to a window, flexible enough to peel off, and consistently capable of converting sunlight into energy.

“Conventionally, functional materials like electronics are made by melting sand at a very high temperature and precisely chopping down the extracted single-crystal silicon into tiny pieces. It’s a subtractive, top-down approach that consumes a lot of energy and produces a lot of waste. By directing the molecules, we can shift the manufacturing process to be additive rather than subtractive – building up rather than tearing down. It’s low-cost, low-energy, and better for the environment,” Diao said.

Using this method to manufacture solar cells – clean energy sources in their own right – is a win-win for energy conservation and technological advancement. In addition to helping the planet, Diao’s research in cancer treatment and drug manufacturing directly impact human healthcare.

“We can leverage molecular assembly to create thin, lightweight sensors that can diagnose kidney disease in the early stages – they’re small chips about the size of your thumb, almost imperceptible to the naked eye and portable enough to take home. One day, we can imagine to diagnose and treat disease right at its inception, and additive manufacturing of functional molecules can help get us there,” Diao said.

Research of this magnitude requires insight and input from a wide array of disciplines, from chemical engineering to materials science to medicine. This collaborative scientific community will be a cornerstone of Diao’s role as co-chair.

“Beckman is an inspiring model. There are no boundaries of departments or colleges. People from all disciplines come together to tackle challenges united under a shared vision.

“I am really hoping to facilitate community-building around molecular science and engineering. It’s still a relatively young discipline, and there are still barriers to overcome. It is my role to break down those barriers,” she said.

Barbey was named co-chair of the Intelligent Systems research theme during the spring semester. He replaces Diane Beck, an Illinois professor of psychology and Beckman faculty member in the Cognitive Neuroscience group. In addition to his co-chair position, Barbey leads the Intelligence, Learning, and Plasticity Initiative and serves as the director of the Decision Neuroscience Laboratory at Beckman.

Learn more about Diao and Barbey’s contributions in the Beckman Institute’s original article.