Beckman Institute marks 20 years of collaboration

Beckman Institute marks 20 years of collaboration

URBANA – In 1985, the Illini baseball field, Strawberry Fields and a cinder track, five laps to the mile, dominated the area near Wright and University.

Within four years, a $50 million facility jutted from the area, a 20-year experiment in bringing scholars from different fields under one roof that has paid off with research that benefits our daily life.

The Beckman Institute, the University of Illinois' interdisciplinary center of collaboration, put a physicist next to a psychologist next to a computer scientist studying artificial intelligence, to see what they could come up with together.

Founding director Theodore Brown said that though many live at least partially in a virtual world, tweeting and facebooking each other, there remains a human connection that is aided by proximity.

The idea was that sharing coffee might spark a sharing of innovation.

"We planned for a cafeteria from the first. We wanted proximity for these researchers, so that they could engage in casual conversation outside their labs," Brown said.

Brown is the author of a new book, "Bridging Divides," on the history of Beckman. It is published by the University of Illinois Press.

He was Urbana's vice chancellor for research in the early '80s. In 1983, he wrote a memo – tellingly, not an e-mail – to key faculty members proposing a "Development of Program Statement for a Major Center."

The idea was there, but not the money, until an Illinois alumnus living in California became aware of it.

It was the $40 million gift (matched by $10 million from the state) of Arnold Beckman, a UI graduate who had gone on to invent the pH meter and other scientific devices, that made the idea a reality.

The $40 million was a surprisingly unrestricted gift, Beckman's early leaders recall.

"He gave us what we need for success," said William Greenough, a psychology professor who studies cellular mechanisms underlying learning and memory and other brain information storage processes. He was part of a "troika" of Beckman leaders with Brown and Karl Hess, a Swanlund Endowed Chair professor of electrical and computer engineering and of physics.

In 1985, Brown came back from vacation to find that Arnold and Mabel Beckman had agreed to fund the building. He had hoped they would agree to give $20 million. Instead, the Beckmans donated what turned out to be the largest single gift ever to a public university at the point.

Hess said the money came more swiftly than the troika had imagined.

By October 1985, the state's $10 million match was confirmed. At a dinner with then and future UI President Stanley Ikenberry, a major backer of the plan, Beckman pondered how fast the work could begin. "He then said why not by Dec. 1, and took out his hearing aid," Hess recalled.

Faculty members began to move into the building in 1989, even though a News-Gazette reporter of the era, Phil Bloomer, noted the "naked iron girders" and "dusty staircases" of dark corridors as the first researchers moved in. The formal dedication was held in April.

Beckman died in 2004.

Brown directed the institute from behind a plywood door in its early days. He stayed until 1993, when chemistry professor Jiri Jonas took over. Jonas was succeeded in 2001 by Pierre Wiltzius, who left the UI in 2008. Interim Director Tamer Basar replaced Wiltzius, with a permanent director expected to be named in 2009.

Basar said in an e-mail that Beckman, for all its evolutions, remains interested in cross-disciplinary work in key areas.

Beckman researchers do their work within four research themes, Basar said.

"Researchers in our Biological Intelligence theme undertake a comprehensive study of the brain's workings at the level of molecules and cells, and its manifestations in higher forms of intelligence such as language acquisition and behavior," he said.

"Human-Computer Intelligent Interaction researchers use computers in a novel way to understand human behavior and create new tools for people, and they also work on improving the computer experience for humans – they are leading the way in an area that has become an integral part of our lives in the last twenty years."

Then there are integrative imaging researchers who build on work by the UI's late Nobel-prize winning Paul Lauterbur, who invented Magnetic Resonance Imaging techniques to peer far beyond what an X-ray could say. An enormous magnet for Lauterbur's research was originally to be housed in Beckman's basement, but the magnet was flawed and taken out.

Basar said Beckman imaging researchers are "also involved in the design, engineering and optimization of imaging instruments and methods – some researchers develop new algorithms to improve image signals, while others make innovative use of light or sound waves to create new types of imaging techniques."

The fourth group is Molecular and Electronic Nanostructures.

These "researchers work today with materials as diverse as glass and human enzymes to explore everything from carbon nanotubes to acoustic waves on projects that were unthinkable when the Beckman Institute opened its doors 20 years ago," Baser said.

"I think Arnold Beckman would be rather pleased with how it's all worked out," Brown said.