Top of the Morning, June 30, 2014: From the archives

Top of the Morning, June 30, 2014: From the archives

There used to be a ballpark here.

And Strawberry Fields, but not forever.

Arnold and Mabel Beckman gave the University of Illinois $40 million and, Sinatra and the Beatles notwithstanding, the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology will turn 25 this year.

Now home to interdisciplinary research in an array of sciences, the institute's earliest days were not smooth.

Businesses and homes were displaced, some by eminent domain. A worker fell and was badly injured during construction. Scorching summer heat threatened some of the trees that were planted as part of the construction project.

Now, from a robot being taught to learn language to a map of the areas of the brain that control emotion intelligence — how we navigate the social world — the institute has brought in millions in research dollars and provides a place for 1,500 researchers from more than 40 UI department.

Arnold Beckman, a native of Cullom, earned bachelor's and master's degrees from the UI. In 1934, in California (he earned a doctorate in 1928 at the California Institute of Technology), Beckman invented a portable meter to measure acidity in lemons. It was the first in a series of inventions of scientific instruments. In 1988, the year before the institute opened, Beckman was awarded the National Medal of Technology and Innovation.

Mark Alan was store manager of Strawberry Fields at the time plans were announced for Beckman. It was perhaps the most visible of the businesses that would be displaced.

Now 59, Alan remembers that the store closed for a few months before a new location could be opened on Green Street in Champaign.

"It created a situation where it had to close for many months," he said. "People lost their jobs, had to change their lives."

"I'm an optimist," he said. "I don't know what other people were thinking. ... It gave me impetus to look at other" possibilities. He had been a Shaklee distributor on a part-time basis and made that his career.

"The reality for me is that when you have a property on campus and the U of I expands, you've got to know that that property is vulnerable," he said.

Beckman Institute, by the numbers (and years)

1983: The interdisciplinary institute was conceived.

1984: Arnold and Mabel Beckman gave $40 million toward the $50 million institute.

350 million: How many dollars the Beckmans would give away over the years.

1989: Beckman Institute opens.

43: How many UI departments the researchers represent.

313,000: Square feet in the building.

1,500: How many researchers work there

Beckman firsts

Courtesy Maeve Reilly, director of communications for the Beckman Institute

— Researchers Klaus Schulten and Juan Perilla from Beckman's Theoretical and Computational Biophysics Group, along with their colleagues, were the first to determine the precise chemical structure of the HIV capsid, a protein shell that protects the virus's genetic material and is a key to its virulence. The capsid has become an attractive target for the development of new antiretroviral drugs.

— Stephen Levison's Language Acquisition and Robotics Laboratory at the Beckman Institute was the first lab in the Western Hemisphere to be awarded an iCub robot. Bert, the childlike robot is involved in research that teaches him to learn language as a child would.

— Using spatial light interference microscopy techniques developed by Gabriel Popescu, director of the Quantitative Light Imaging Laboratory at the Beckman Institute, the researchers were able to show for the first time how human embryonic stem cell derived neurons within a network grow, organize spatially, and dynamically transport materials to one another.

—Beckman researcher Aron Barbey and colleagues were the first to create a detailed map of the brain regions that contribute to emotional intelligence—the ability to process emotional information and navigate the social world. Their study of 152 Vietnam veterans with combat-related brain injuries provided the findings that will help scientists and clinicians understand and respond to brain injuries in their patients, Barbey said, but the results also are of broader interest because they illustrate the interdependence of general and emotional intelligence in the healthy mind.

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