Welcome to the Bauhaus (West)

By Sylvia Tiersten

A Bauhaus West on campus? That’s how Frieder Seible, dean of the Jacobs School of Engineering, semi-humorously refers to UC San Diego’s new Structural and Materials Engineering (SME) building. In the 1920s, the Bauhaus movement in Germany brought art, technology and craftsmanship together under one roof, becoming one of the most influential players in modern design. “It was artists, engineers and architects. These disciplines were put together—and guess what—modern architecture came out of it,” says Seible, who will retire from UCSD in April 2013.

SME’s 183,000-square-foot space, with art studios on all four floors, art exhibition areas and an indoor/outdoor performance space, also invites the same kind of interdisciplinary interactions.
  “What happens when you create a research environment in which structural engineers, nanoengineers, medical device researchers and visual artists, all working at different scales, come together?” Seible muses. “What can we expect to emerge from this multi-scale engineering building 10, 15, 20 years from now?”

Even as Seible posits the questions, he is certain of one thing. “The interface between traditional academic disciplines is where the most exciting research is these days,” he says. “And they are all coming together in this new SME building. We needed space for these new ideas.” From 3-D printing of blood vessels, and safer heart pumps for ailing children, to making bridges and buildings safer during an earthquake, and developing the first laboratory for advanced composite aircraft safety, transformative projects are already underway.

Late Start

UC San Diego did not have an official engineering school until 1994, but the University has turned that to its advantage. “It’s very difficult to change an archaic academic structure. Unlike long-established engineering schools, we don’t have artificial boundaries or silos here,” says Seible, who was appointed dean of the Jacobs School in 2003.

Currently Jacobs has six engineering departments. Three of them—bioengineering, structural engineering and nanoengineering—are what Seible calls boutique departments, not because they are small, but because they are interdisciplinary and non-traditional.

The Bioengineering Department, established in 1994, has its roots in the 1960s, when Yuan-Cheng (Y.C.) Fung initiated a bioengineering program in the Department of Applied Mechanics and Engineering Science, as a joint program with the School of Medicine. Fung, a former aeronautical engineer, applied mechanical engineering principles to the human body.

Structural Engineering, which Seible founded in 1995, remains the only accredited structural engineering department in the nation. Asked to create a civil engineering department, he refused, contending that there were already too many. Instead, the Structural Engineering Department focuses on structural mechanics and materials that go beyond civil structures, to encompass offshore, aerospace, mechanical and bio structures.

“Structural engineering is an activity that crosses all other engineering fields,” says Seible. “You use the same structural analysis codes to analyze bridges or airplanes or the human body.”

NanoEngineering was established in 2007 in response to UCSD’s industry partners who were clamoring for a workforce that was trained at the nano scale (slightly more than 1000th of a millimeter). The department’s focus is on biomedical nanotechnology for medical devices and drug delivery, nanotechnologies for energy conversion, computational nanotechnology, as well as molecular and nanomaterials.

The Institute of Engineering in Medicine (IEM) is not a department but more of an umbrella for collaborations involving UC San Diego School of Medicine and Jacobs Engineering faculty. And Visual Arts, another tenant of the new “Bauhaus,” having begun to run out of space in its own building, installed its revolutionary Kuka Systems robotic mill in SME, along with some of its other projects and people.

The Culture of Collaboration

“There is a culture of acceptance and promotion of interdisciplinary work on this campus,” says Alison Marsden, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering.

It is a culture that is becoming more prevalent throughout the engineering world. Writing interdisciplinary research proposals has become a critical skill. “Agencies such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) expect you to have collaborative teams drawn from two or three or more departments,” says Marsden. “The boundaries between disciplines are becoming quite blurred.”

Marsden is working with Yuri Bazilevs, a professor of structural engineering, to create blood-flow simulations that could lead to improvements in the design of the Berlin Heart, a cardiac pump for children born with heart defects.

Marsden, Bazilevs and their research teams recently moved into the SME building. With 62 research and instructional laboratories; 160 faculty, graduate student and staff offices; and a mix of cutting-edge disciplines and research projects close at hand, “I can definitely envision collaborations with people in structural and nanoengineering that I might not have thought about before,” says Marsden.

To nanoengineering professor Shaochen Chen, the mix of disciplines and perspectives in the SME building and the ability to share resources makes perfect sense. “Nano cannot live without traditional skills,” he says. His interdisciplinary research involves laser physics, nano/micro-manufacturing, nanomaterials and biomedical engineering.

Chen and his team have developed a technology for printing three-dimensional blood vessels in seconds, which could lead to better systems for growing and studying cells, including stem cells, in the laboratory.

Collaboration By Design

“I build bridges,” says Seible, speaking literally and metaphorically of his own career. He is a world leader in bridge design and strategies to mitigate earthquake damage to buildings and bridges.

Not surprisingly, the SME building contains a bridge—and a distinctive one at that. Roughly 40 feet in length with a translucent glass floor, it extends from a second-floor terrace to a grassy knoll behind the building—creating an inviting outdoor space for collaborating and exchanging ideas.

Bridging the arts and sciences and connecting disparate engineering disciplines in the new building was a challenge Seible relished. To encourage maximum interaction, research laboratories, visual arts studios and visualization facilities function as shared resources. “If I see a faculty name on a laboratory door, I will tear it off,” says Seible. “We need core facilities that are there for everybody.”

Bridging the arts and sciences and connecting disparate engineering disciplines in the new building was a challenge Seible relished. To encourage maximum interaction, research laboratories, visual arts studios and visualization facilities function as shared resources. “If I see a faculty name on a laboratory door, I will tear it off,” says Seible. “We need core facilities that are there for everybody.”
Shirley Meng, a NanoEngineering professor, credits the building’s architecture with bringing together people who might not otherwise connect. “The meeting space and common area on the second floor gives people from structural engineering, nanoengineering and visual arts a common-ground place where they can talk to each other,” she says.

At the Meng Laboratory for Energy Storage and Conversion, the research emphasis is on rechargeable batteries, electric car applications and renewable energy storage, including solar. The goal is to improve energy density in lithium-ion batteries and increase battery efficiency while keeping raw material, manufacturing and packaging costs low. And though Meng has only been in the SME building for a few months, she has already started talking with structural engineering faculty about creating safer materials for battery packs.

She has also welcomed the opportunity to explain her research in energy storage and conversion to her visual-artist neighbors. “We need to let the public know more about scientific research that is important to them in everyday life. Scientists tend to explain research in a scientific way,” says Meng, “but to reach the general public, we can use some help from the arts community.”

Meng found “NanoMacroMega,” the inaugural exhibition in the SME art gallery, helpful in this regard. It included photographic prints that artist Anya Gallaccio made by using an electron microscope to scan nano and micro particles.

And these interactions work at subtle levels. While NanoEngineer Chen works with 3-D printing at the nanoscale, the computer numerically controlled (CNC) Kuka Systems robot that the Visual Arts Department placed in the new building operates at the mega level. Sculptor Jennifer Pastor, as well as other artists, plans to use the robot arm to carve large, 3-D objects from materials such as wood, Styrofoam and new composites.

This bridge-building between the various disciplines is at the heart of Chancellor Pradeep K. Khosla’s vision for the campus. “As I look at where UCSD is headed, I think the SME building signifies the beginning of what we should be doing more and more of, which is combining sciences, engineering, technology, arts and humanities, all in a single hall, to solve problems of societal significance,” Khosla said at the building’s dedication ceremony.

As Seible retires from UC San Diego, two of the stellar achievements he leaves behind are the SME building and the philosophy behind it. Visionary in concept and stunning in execution, the building will stand as a model for future interdisciplinary research facilities.

Sylvia Tiersten is a frequent freelance contributor to Triton Magazine.