The Future of Science at NYU
By Andrew Postman
Artwork by Philiplueck
This past May, President Andrew Hamilton provided “An Update on the Sciences at NYU.” The report highlighted four fields of science with ambitious visions: supercomputing, chemical biology, bioengineering, and quantum phenomena (artificial intelligence was recently named a priority as well). The university’s unique potential for intersectionality in these areas makes them ideal for investment. Each field offers an opportunity to leverage—and then merge—existing institutional strengths, with the promise that the whole will be more than the sum of its parts.
While the update showcased these four initiatives, it also heralded significant progress as well: NYU competes for grants with a success rate of 29 percent, consistently beating the national average. An increase in research and development investment pushed our university ranking by the National Science Foundation from 55th a decade ago to 18th today (among private institutions, that ranking jumps to 9th). NYU has created more than 50 start-ups in the past five years, with 78 percent greater start-up activity per research dollar than the national average. We rank first in licensing, with revenues in excess of $2.3 billion. The university is the 17th-most-patent-generating place in the United States and 20th worldwide.
Much of this activity coincides with the arrival of Stacie Bloom, the university’s new vice provost of research. The ultimate goal is “to increase the competitiveness of NYU’s research portfolio through strategic development,” Bloom says.
As the push continues for ever-greater global recognition of, and contribution by, the sciences, we explore what specifically is being accomplished here in the fields of supercomputing, chemical biology, bioengineering, and quantum phenomena, and what they might look like in the near (and more distant) future.
With so much science being done computationally, it’s a virtual necessity for NYU to be upping its game in this area. Researchers need a dedicated, high-speed, low-latency internet on which to conduct their work. Shockingly, those at NYU currently use the same network that students use to stream Netflix (and do homework, of course).
The demand for high-performance computing—not only in areas of traditional strength for the university, such as math and mathematics modeling, data science, virtual and augmented reality, and artificial intelligence, but in numerous other research areas as well—grows day by day.
Just a decade and a half ago, the fastest supercomputer in New York City could be found on the NYU campus. So what happened? Competition for supercomputing increased, with more nodes available, including at other New York–based research institutions. Some NYU researchers had access to supercomputers through their collaborators. And it costs a lot to buy and support high-level computing power.
Suddenly, NYU had slipped in an area of previous strength, if not dominance. Fortunately, all of that is turning around.
NYU’s IT division, in collaboration with various deans and schools, is designing a new high-performance computing cluster to address the limitations of the current one, which includes long wait times and restrictions on job size and duration.
With more and more research demanding access to supercomputing, with everyone collecting big data sets, with a need for different types of data storage systems, the university is creating the Center for Research Computing (CRC), which will feature a petascale supercomputer (able to perform more than 1 quadrillion floating point operations per second) and a dedicated, high-speed research network for NYU scholars.
Stratos Efstathiadis, director of the university’s Research Technology Services, is working with researchers and faculty on designing the new supercomputer and network, aiming to complete that part of the process by the start of 2020.
For the former, Efstathiadis says, “we’re looking at the latest technologies in CPUs and storage, which may produce the fastest machine in New York City”; for the latter, “when it’s done, it may be the fastest network at an academic institution in the United States.”
One way to save on the cost of such a project is to forgo Manhattan and choose a colocation facility where real estate, as well as the enormous amount of required electricity (including cooling the machine), is more reasonably priced. The new supercomputer will be allocated about 1.5 megawatts of power, “enough to run a small village,” Efstathiadis says, a size meant to accommodate the projected growth of the university’s high-performance computing needs.
Once upon a time, when the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences’ supercomputer was the pride of the campus, its residence in Manhattan made its upkeep difficult (due to the value of square footage and the higher cost of electricity). New Jersey and upstate New York are the two finalists for the site of the colocation facility.
The CRC, Efstathiadis says, “will have a front end where students and faculty can just walk in and discuss—think of it as a lobby or concierge desk.” It will provide training for those with questions about tools—how to launch a survey, for example, or how to run a simulation; think a high-end version of Apple’s Genius Bar. While the actual machine will reside elsewhere, this front end may be headquartered in Brooklyn.
Reestablishing NYU as a center for high-performance computing will help its researchers undertake cutting-edge work and, more subtly, create the special environment where such research is done. Efstathiadis hopes this all leads to NYU’s renewed ability to “attract more funding, enable researchers to apply for bigger grants, attract faculty, retain talented faculty, and attract advanced students.”
Reestablishing NYU as a center for high-performance computing will help its researchers undertake cutting-edge work and, more subtly, create the special environment where such research is done.
First things first: chemical biology is not biochemistry.
Not so simply put: while biochemistry is the study of chemical substances and processes related to living organisms (which more or less boils down to the study of larger molecules, such as proteins and nucleic acids), chemical biology is the development and application of chemical tools to address questions in biology and medicine. Put another way, it’s the study of the chemistry of biological processes, designing new molecules to help probe living systems, and generating drugs to address major health issues.
Confused? James Canary, professor and department chair of chemistry, acknowledges that “you can ask 10 different people what chemical biology is and get 10 different answers”—but that’s because the field requires an understanding of biochemistry, organic chemistry, physical chemistry, biophysical chemistry, and probably a few other chemistries as well.
How long has this umbrella field existed? There’s some debate about that, too, according to chemistry professor Paramjit Arora. “Some people say chemical biology is just a phrase that became popular but has [in fact] existed as long as people have been making molecules and using drugs,” he says. “But as a field, it became popular in the late 1980s and 1990s, when synthetic chemistry became powerful enough that you could actually make lots of compounds that you needed, and spectroscopy became well-established enough that you could look at things properly, you could image cells.”
The launch of the Chemical Biology Initiative by Arts and Science, in collaboration with the Tandon School of Engineering and the School of Medicine (some professors there also have appointments at the College of Global Public Health), will grow the chemistry department by six new positions. It will also mean the renovation of nearly 70,000 square feet of lab space and foster a multidisciplinary approach to developing molecular solutions in biology and medicine, as faculty and students share different but complementary viewpoints and skills to make 1+1 equal more than 2.
“Chemical biology could be the linchpin that brings together chemistry with biology, with medicine and engineering, so we have lots of people working on similar problems, with different approaches,” Arora says.
One example: Michele Pagano, chair of biochemistry and molecular pharmacology, had long been working on understanding how proteins degrade inside cells; meanwhile, Dirk Trauner, chemistry professor, had been studying how to control molecular function with light. Thanks to the initiative, the two men got together, blended their expertise and tools, and realized they could make proteins degrade in response to light. Another example: Dafna Bar-Sagi, professor of medicine as well as biochemistry and molecular pharmacology, has been working on Ras, an undruggable protein that mutates in cancers (meaning that even after many attempts, the drug companies have not been able to create a molecule to tame it). During a meeting with Arora, they realized that Ras was a good target for the kind of strategies Arora’s lab was developing to control protein structures. The result? They’re hopeful of generating the kinds of leads “that have not existed so far,” Arora says.
The Chemical Biology Initiative focuses on four core areas: cancer chemical biology, chemical immunology, chemical neuroscience, and molecular spectroscopy and imaging.
Because chemical biology crosses paths with medicine, engineering, neuroscience, even physics, there was a push to create subgroups between faculty in different departments and schools—imaging, spectroscopy, computational chemistry, mimicry, chemical microbiology (dealing with infectious diseases), and materials science, among others.
Most of the work being done in chemical biology is “basic research,” according to Canary—that is, it’s often years removed from the discovery of a new compound that may become a life-changing drug or treatment. “But it’s important to remember that basic research is fundamental to applied research,” he adds. “No one set out to develop a computer when they discovered the transistor.” Of course, the department is always interested in applications for their work and enjoys, according to Canary, strong support through the Office of Industrial Liaison, which manages all activities relating to the protection and commercial promotion of inventions made at NYU.
“We probably already have the strongest chemical biology group in New York City,” Canary says, but now that NYU is making a substantial investment in the field, “we would like to say that for the United States.”
“Chemical biology could be the linchpin that brings together chemistry with biology, with medicine and engineering, so we have lots of people working on similar problems, with different approaches.”
Bioengineering is developing technologies that improve human health. The new Biomedical Engineering Department in the Tandon School of Engineering, approved last June by the Board of Trustees, sports a faculty with half based in the School of Medicine, half in Tandon. They are focused on harnessing advances in engineering, materials, and processes in the service of human health, creating high-tech applications for better diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment.
But for all the different skill sets and perspectives of the program’s practitioners, in many ways the collaborators “approach things quite the same,” says Mary Cowman, a professor of biomedical engineering at Tandon and orthopedic surgery at Medicine who is also the acting chair of the new department. “Rather than focus only on basic science for the beauty of it—which we all love—it’s the desire to do something that has immediate impact. That’s the mindset, though therapeutics can sometimes take decades. It doesn’t matter if you come from science or engineering or medicine. It all means high technology.”
The group working to create biomaterials and biotherapeutics for regenerative medicine includes chemical engineers, biomolecular engineers, and mechanical engineers. A team working on novel medical diagnostics and biosensors includes contributors from the fields of applied physics, chemical and biomolecular engineering, and electrical engineering. Bio-inspired design and complex mathematical modeling of biological systems are being studied by mechanical and electrical engineers as well as computer scientists.
Among the numerous field-altering devices and therapeutics the faculty have produced or are working on: OTC (optical coherence tomography, or noninvasive retinal imaging); improved cochlear implant performance for multitalker babble noise reduction (basically, a device to help those with hearing loss who are in a noisy room distinguish and filter out background noise); a sensor-based system for breast cancer patients susceptible to lymphedema (swelling of the lymph nodes); a machine-learning approach to diagnosing mild traumatic brain imaging (improving MRI analysis); a device for the vision-impaired, such as a smart cane or wearable vest (which, like many new cars, possesses 3-D awareness of its surroundings and clues in the wearer by vibration); an eye-tracking device for potential use with sports injuries (helping to determine whether a player is ready to return to the field); and much more.
One of the most exciting developments: biotherapeutics, sometimes known as injectables, which are useful, for example, in repairing cartilage, tissue, and bone degraded by osteoarthritis or common wear and tear. (This is of great interest not only to those in the medical school but also in the College of Dentistry, which does significant bone repair work and implant integration with bone.) These compounds are engineered so that, postinjury, the injectable provides pain relief while also carrying a special protein fragment that helps to induce stem cells to repair the cartilage; in short, it triggers the cartilage to heal itself. The musculoskeletal repair group working in this area has a number of patents and patent applications, many of which may take years to see approval and broad acceptance.
Then there are microfluidics and devices that have an astounding ability to isolate single cells and characterize what those cells are doing; this allows, for example, patient-specific tumor analysis, where the investigator traps and analyzes one cell and sees how it reacts to various stimuli.
As vital as it is for those in biomedical engineering to bring beneficial products to market, that’s not the program’s only mission: first and foremost, it aims to provide excellent education and training, and to facilitate research.
Biomedical engineering had been an educational program, with both master’s and PhD tracks, that was shared by different departments, but it wasn’t the core interest of any particular department and wasn’t able to fulfill its potential. The creation of a true, dedicated department opens the door to greatly improve educational programs, with seminars, colloquia, and outside speakers.
The joining of engineering and medicine is a first step—and a very big one. The School of Medicine has been separated from other parts of NYU in many ways, and the teaming up of the two schools on this project helps to build a bridge. “We’re together in this, educationally and in research,” Cowman says. “We’re going to be a powerhouse.”
The joining of engineering and medicine is a first step—and a very big one. The School of Medicine has been separated from other parts of NYU in many ways, and the teaming up of the two schools on this project helps to build a bridge.
Quantum phenomena are the smallest elements and material known to scientists. Research into identifying, measuring, and manipulating quantum phenomena holds the promise that problems that either can’t be solved on a classical computer or that would take an indefinite amount of time to solve could in fact be solved, and done so in a finite amount of time.
NYU’s Center for Quantum Phenomena (CQP) represents the Physics Department’s belief that an institution can’t be regarded as truly world-class without strength in this realm. CQP focuses on condensed matter and atomic, molecular, and optical physics, and their applications to material science, atomic and molecular spectroscopy, nonlinear optics, and quantum information technology.
NYU’s Physics Department had already distinguished itself in other areas, such as particle physics and soft-matter physics (where the university essentially became top-notch within seven years), among other branches. Now they’re doing so with quantum phenomena, a push supported not just by the university leadership but also by the National Science Foundation, which provided several grants.
“We felt we had to [develop our presence in quantum phenomena] to have a world-class physics department and attract top students, top postdocs, top faculty,” says Andrew Kent, professor of physics and director of the center, which also involves faculty at the Tandon School of Engineering and partners with the Flatiron Institute of the Simons Foundation, including its Center for Computational Quantum Physics.
It’s not the university’s first foray into quantum physics—far from it. Gregory Breit, chair of NYU’s Physics Department starting in 1929, established a research program in quantum physics that drew notable young researchers such as John A. Wheeler (a pioneer in the field of quantum information and in linking the tenets of general relativity and quantum mechanics) and Jenny Rosenthal Bramley (an early leader in the field of electro-optics with key contributions to electro-luminescent phenomena and laser physics).
More broadly and recently, the department has made its mark through faculty involved in the discovery of the Higgs boson, those involved in exploring the large-scale structure of the universe through the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, and many more projects. “Every group we’ve had has made an impact,” says Kent, who specializes in condensed matter physics and is one of the world’s experts in spintronics (the study of an electron’s spin and its magnetic strength and orientation).
The center is about 80 percent experimental, 20 percent theoretical, estimates Kent, with researchers “making materials and systems and studying them, doing measurements. We get our hands dirty.” This includes “making certain types of atomic systems that have quantum properties—atoms arranged in particular ways. You can have atoms isolated, or you can have them interact in some way and see what happens.”
In the materials group, for example, they can set the interactions between atoms, which is how information is conveyed between them. While many of the digital technologies we know best, like cell phones and computers, work largely on a binary foundation of zeroes and ones, where each logical gate in a circuit is either on or off, quantum properties expand the possibilities by allowing the superposition of many binary states, enabling information processing for very complex problems with greater efficiency.
Some problems that would take exponentially long to solve on a conventional computer—such as the classic “traveling salesman problem,” where someone wants to optimize visiting multiple cities by traveling the least amount; or finding the prime factors of a very large number, a concept that forms the basis of encryption technology—are doable with quantum physics, thus making solvable a whole class of problems in materials and atomic systems.
Just a few years ago, the center had five faculty in quantum phenomena. Today there are eight. The goal in the next few years is to reach 10. Finally, some simple math—obvious enough to show the gaining influence and prestige of CQP.
Some problems that would take exponentially long to solve on a conventional computer are doable with quantum physics, thus making solvable a whole class of problems in materials and atomic systems.