UCI receives $2.9 million grant to start 'LifeChips' program

Graduate students blend disciplines to study and advance small-scale technology benefiting life science research

Irvine, Calif., July 20, 2006 -- UC Irvine has been awarded nearly $2.9 million over five years to create a new graduate program in which students will combine the practices of engineering, physical sciences, biological sciences and medicine to produce small-scale technologies that benefit human health. Graduates of the LifeChips program will have the skills necessary to develop technology used to identify new drugs, facilitate stem cell research and improve scientists' understanding of tissue, organs, genes, proteins, cells, DNA and other basic components of life.

Funded by the National Science Foundation's Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship program, LifeChips will focus on the study of micro and nanotechnology as it applies to life sciences. The program takes its name from a new term scientists use to describe research on the overlap between life sciences and technology that naturally occurs at microscopic scales. Microtechnology refers to devices measured in micrometers -- one micrometer is one millionth of a meter -- which are widely used in electrical and mechanical equipment such as blood-pressure monitors and automobile airbags. A human hair is about 50 micrometers wide. Nanotechnology is based on work done at an even smaller level, the nanometer, or one billionth of a meter. A red blood cell is about 10,000 nanometers wide.

The LifeChips program is innovative because students will study miniaturized technology as it applies to several scientific areas, allowing them to develop a broad base of skills. Biology students will learn engineering principles of design and manufacturing, enabling them to create useful and powerful tools for laboratory research, while engineering students will study life's remarkable technology that has evolved over 3 billion years. Traditionally, students specialize in one area and occasionally collaborate with other disciplines.

LifeChips officially began July 15 and is in the process of recruiting students.

"Today's engineers rarely apply biological processes and insights to nanotechnology, and nanotechnology has yet to be fully utilized to study biology," said G.P. Li, head of the LifeChips program, director of the Integrated Nanosystems Research Facility, and professor of electrical engineering and computer science at UCI. "By focusing on training a new group of cross-disciplinary students, our program will encourage development in this under-explored scientific and engineering frontier."

This is the first time UCI has received a highly competitive IGERT grant, designed to support well-focused multidisciplinary graduate programs. The grant and subsequent UCI funding will support six new students each year, for a total of 30 students over five years. Each student will receive a $30,000-per-year stipend, with tuition and fees waived each year for two years. Students will be required to take classes in multiple disciplines, and they will have two advisers from different campus units to encourage interdisciplinary learning. More than 20 faculty members in areas such as physiology, microbiology, chemistry, physics, and biomedical and electrical engineering will teach classes, supervise research and serve as advisers.

"The LifeChips program will benefit from the momentum and excitement already generated by our talented faculty who understand the importance of collaboration," said Bill Parker, vice chancellor for research and dean of graduate studies at UCI. "We have outstanding professors with expertise in micro and nanotechnology, biochip fabrication, biology and medicine. LifeChips will bolster our already strong interdisciplinary culture."

Students who graduate from this program will be prepared to lead the next generation of LifeChips research, said Nicolaos G. Alexopoulos, dean of The Henry Samueli School of Engineering. "They will be poised to make scientific discoveries, transform these discoveries into broadly available technologies and apply these technologies to problems in the fields of engineering, medicine and life sciences," Alexopoulos said.

The LifeChips program is organized and supported by the Integrated Nanosystems Research Facility, an interdisciplinary research laboratory in The Henry Samueli School of Engineering that serves the UCI campus and industry. LifeChips also is affiliated with UCI's Stem Cell Core Facility and the Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center.

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