How Nanoscience is Changing the World: Rein Ulijn of the ASRC

March 20, 2017

When Professor Rein Ulijn (Chemistry) first flew in from Glasgow to visit the Advanced Science Research Center (ASRC) in 2013, the structure was still more than a year from completion. But even in its skeletal stages, it seized his imagination.

In 2013, when Professor Rein Ulijn (Chemistry) first flew in from Glasgow to visit the Advanced Science Research Center (ASRC), the facility was still more than a year from completion. But even in its skeletal stage, it gripped his imagination.

"I was completely blown away," Ulijn says. "I realized this would be a catalyst for high-end research within the city. Becoming a part of it was an incredibly exciting opportunity."

Ulijn is the founding director of the Nanoscience Initiative at the ASRC, which recently joined the Graduate Center and is the epicenter of a CUNY-wide science research network that links faculty, students, and postdoctoral fellows.

Located on the southern edge of the City College campus, the building is an architectural marvel, complete with towering glass staircase (left) and flowing floor plans designed to encourage collaboration.

In addition to the Nanoscience Initiative, the ASRC is home to labs in four other fields of applied science: Structural BiologyNeuroscience, Environmental Sciences, and soon Photonics. What its core facilities mean for researchers - and for the outer boundaries of science - is a story now unfolding.

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Ulijn's lab focuses on developing new nanoscale materials from biology's smallest building blocks. For context, a nanometer is one billionth of a meter, and the dimensions of a nanostructure are no more than a few nanometers.

"Living things are teeming with functional nanostructures: machines and materials of incredible efficiency and sophistication that we can't create synthetically," Ulijn says.

When scientists try to repair biological tissues, a first step is growing cells on a matrix. Though nature's version of this matrix is extremely complex, the lab has created simple mimics that support cell growth and tissue formation.

The "Ulijn Group, as his team (pictured below) is called, has used peptides to make structuring components for cosmetics, food science, and personal care products, and developed materials for use in regenerative medicine.

The potential ramifications for bone repair, immunity, and even cures for cancer, diabetes, and other life-threatening diseases are vast.

"What is amazing is that these 'machines' - and all of biology - are largely composed of just 20 building blocks; functionality arises from how these building blocks are arranged. Our goal is very simple: to figure out how to make new materials from biology's building blocks and to apply these materials to diverse problems, such as creating delivery vehicles for drugs."
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Ulijn, who is also the Einstein Professor of Chemistry at Hunter College, spent two and a half years running closely connected, parallel labs: one at the ASRC and one at his previous academic home at the University of Strathclyde. "There was a lot of traffic back and forth from my students, but that transition is almost complete," he says.

His lab in Glasgow had about 25 researchers; in the past few years, the Nanoscience Initiative -- the first of the ASRC's initiatives to complete its faculty hires -- has already expanded to 40 scientists, a roster which Ulijn hopes to double in size.

The lab, like the others within the ASRC, has begun to seize the spotlight, he says.

"We're in a city surrounded by mostly private universities, but we're really becoming a magnet for collaboration," says Ulijn. "We have researchers coming in from Columbia, NYU, and Rockefeller University. And you really don't find that anywhere else, whether locally, nationally, or even internationally."

Professors at the ASRC are also based at a home college within CUNY. Likewise, the center's students divide their time between the ASRC and their home colleges.

"This is a research facility to benefit all of CUNY," Ulijn says. "Students are our lifeblood, and we're working hard with the Graduate Center to expand and improve the bench science programs." The ASRC is also working on stronger industrial links, he adds, so that students gain more exposure to business and entrepreneurship.
"Because of the facility and the researchers, it's easy to get people excited about working with us," Ulijn says. "Every day, when I walk in, I'm still amazed by this place, and by everything we're doing here."