Neuroengineering gains momentum with funding, faculty, students

Announced one year ago, the Rice Neuroengineering Initiative has attracted graduate students and raised more than $42.2 million in external funding.

Rice Neuroengineering Initiative

The Rice Neuroengineering Initiative (RNI) was announced a year ago and has already attracted graduate students, hired three new faculty members and raised more than $42.2 million in external funding.

“It’s very easy to attract students to neuroengineering. It’s a new field, one that will become even more important in the future. Rice is smart to be pursuing this initiative at this time,” said Behnaam Aazhang, the J.S. Abercrombie Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE), and director of the program.

RNI, to be housed in the Bioscience Research Collaborative (BRC), includes 30 researchers representing seven engineering departments and the Department of Psychology at Rice, and others from the University of Texas Health Science Center and Baylor College of Medicine. A third of the initiative’s researchers are drawn from ECE.

“We’re in a happy situation. The initiative is new and yet we’ve attracted a lot of interest and support,” said Aazhang, who describes the human brain as a “statistical inference engine.”

By using such strategies as neuroimaging, high-throughput genomics, optical imaging, data modeling and metabolomics, he expects researchers to apply advanced engineering techniques to increase understanding of such disorders as Parkinson’s, aphasia, epilepsy, obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression.

Remodeling is underway in the BRC, where the administrative office will be located on the ninth floor and labs on the seventh, eighth and ninth. Aazhang expects the work to be completed this fall. Funding sources include DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs and private foundations.

Last year, the university invested some $50 million to launch the neuroengineering initiative, according to Kathy Collins, Rice’s vice president for finance. That figure included the cost of hiring five new tenured/tenure-track faculty members across several departments, and their associated startup costs. Three new faculty members have been thus far hired as part of the initiative:

Chong Xie, associate professor of ECE, who earned his Ph.D. in materials science and engineering from Stanford University in 2011, and served as a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard. Since 2014 he has been an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Texas at Austin. His research focuses on the use of nanomaterials in biomedical applications, and in applying advanced nanoelectronic devices to various neural systems. He will join the Rice faculty in January.

Lan Luan, who will join the Rice faculty as an assistant professor of ECE on Oct. 1. Presently she is a research assistant professor in biomedical engineering at the University of Texas at Austin. She earned her Ph.D. in physics from Stanford in 2011, followed by three years at Harvard University as a postdoctoral fellow in physics. Her research focuses on developing a neural interface that combines recording, imaging, and stimulation, with applications in neuroscience and disease modeling.

Jerzy Szablowski, assistant professor of BIOE, who earned his Ph.D. in bioengineering from the California Institute of Technology in 2015. Since then he has served as a postdoctoral researcher in chemical engineering at Caltech. His research focuses on controlling living cells within deep tissues through ultrasound-mediated delivery and biomolecular engineering. His lab is the Laboratory for Noninvasive Neuroengineering. Szablowski will join the Rice faculty in January 2020.

In addition to the new hires, Aazhang identified the initiative’s core faculty as himself; Caleb Kemere, associate professor of ECE and of bioengineering; Marcia O’Malley, the Stanley C. Moore Professor of Mechanical Engineering, and professor of computer science and ECE; Jacob Robinson, associate professor of ECE and of BIOE; and Robert Raphael, associate professor of BIOE.

“As we get established, we expect to have even more collaborations with the Texas Medical Center. We learn from the clinicians and they learn from us, the engineers,” Aazhang said.