Grainger Engineering Breakthroughs Initiative to support research in big data and bioengineering

2/18/2013 Tom Moone, ECE ILLINOIS

The Grainger Engineering Breakthroughs Initiative, a new College of Engineering initiative supported by a $100 million donation by The Grainger Foundation, will have far-reaching impact in several ECE research areas and the educational mission of the department.

Written by Tom Moone, ECE ILLINOIS

On January 28, the University of Illinois announced the establishment of the Grainger Engineering Breakthroughs Initiative, a $100 million investment in the future of Engineering at Illinois. Supported by a pledge from The Grainger Foundation, this initiative will have far-reaching impact in several ECE research areas and the educational mission of the department.

In particular, the initiative will focus on supporting research in the areas of big data and bioengineering, areas in which ECE has had a long history with promise of more to come.

Big data
“Just as our world was changed by the inventions of the transistor, the integrated circuit, and the light-emitting diode in the twentieth century, the twenty-first century will see equally revolutionary changes as we engineer biology and medicine, and reveal [huge] volumes of new information and data from biological discoveries,” said ECE and Bioengineering Professor [profile:boppart]. “Big Data will only get bigger.”

One source ( has indicated that data usage has grown by ~25,000 percent over the past five years. This astounding number gives just one indication of the impact of big data. Finding ways to use and control the staggering amounts of data created every day is a daunting task. But this is one of the tasks that the initiative will support.

“The availability of massive amounts of data has recently passed a tipping point,” explained ECE Professor [profile:b-hajek]. “While the amount of useful information found in available data has exploded, the sheer volume and diversity of the data has outgrown our ability to store, transport, and process it.”   

Research in the area of big data includes developing tools for enabling computation of the large databases that are only increasing every day, developing ways to ensure individual privacy while working with the data, establishing processes for storing and maintaining large data sets, and designing methods for merging diverse sources of information, such as text, images, video, and sensor information.

While big data will be an area of expanded emphasis for the college, ECE researchers have already been involved in dealing with the challenges presented by these massive amounts of data.

ECE Associate Professor [profile:milenkov] has led an interdisciplinary team of researchers from Illinois and Caltech who have been developing a theory and practice of ordinal information organization, representation, aggregation, retrieval, and extraction. In particular, they are focusing on projects such as large-volume ordinal data fusion in genomics and proteomics, knowledge extraction from ordinal Internet data (as produced by meta-search engines), and data produced by modern recommender systems.

“I believe that this new initiative will allow us to branch out into new interdisciplinary research fields in which engineering knowledge was so far underutilized,” said Milenkovic.

ECE Assistant Professor [profile:yilu4] is working on projects involved in cloud computing, whose applications often involve large amounts of data. “How to process the ‘big’ data timely and efficiently, often in online interactive applications, has become a hot research area,” said Lu. “This initiative can help bring researchers on the application side closer to those on the infrastructure side.”

Through projects funded by the National Science Foundation and the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, ECE Professor [profile:vvv] has been developing statistical techniques for efficient outlier and anomaly detection in big data. He is also working with Milenkovic and Bioengineering Assistant Professor Jian Ma to develop ways to identify organisms from a stream of DNA sequences.

Veeravalli said, “This initiative will help to bring together the various ongoing efforts on big data within ECE and the College of Engineering, and will help foster new collaborative efforts. Given the tremendous importance of big data research on all aspects of modern society including education, health, financial systems, and agriculture, the impact of this gift will be big.”

The bioengineering area will also benefit from the Breakthroughs Initiative support. While the Department of Bioengineering will certainly gain from this initiative, there is much research in ECE that is found within the bioengineering area.

“Illinois has been a strong leader in bioengineering for decades,” said ECE Department Head [profile:cangella]. “The bioengineering program evolved into the Department of Bioengineering in 2003. Many ECE faculty members hold joint appointments in Bioengineering, and many ECE students are preparing for their careers by taking courses in molecular biology, cell biology, physiology, medicine, and bioengineering due to the enormous growth of career opportunities in biology-related engineering fields.”

ECE and Bioengineering Professor [profile:rbashir], who is also director of the Micro and Nanotechnology Laboratory, said, “New devices for use as point of care sensors, nanotechnology-enabled innovations for diagnostics and therapeutics, tissue engineering, synthetic biology and systems biology—all of these exciting frontiers of bioengineering—will have a transformative impact on humanity.”

Work being done by ECE faculty is already having an impact on diagnostics and therapeutics. Bashir and ECE Professor [profile:jleburto] led a team at Illinois that developed new technology for DNA sensing. This technology was recently licensed by Oxford Nanopore Technology. ECE and Bioengineering Professor [profile:bcunning] has been involved in several research projects that have developed technologies for detecting biomarkers and that have designed applications for using this technology.

“Beyond health, advances in these frontiers will impact our progress in other fields such as biofuels, energy, the environment, and bio-inspired materials and devices,” said Bashir. “The new research directions and the multidisciplinary collaborations that this initiative will foster across all engineering departments, the life sciences, and other parts of campus will not only strengthen bioengineering at Illinois, but will boost our leadership as educators and innovators in these important new fields.”

Areas of impact of the initiative
The Grainger Engineering Breakthroughs Initiative will have a direct impact on ECE ILLINOIS and the College of Engineering in four specific ways:

  • The initiative will provide source funds to endow 35 professorships and chairs. Twenty-six of these will focus specifically on the areas of big data and bioengineering, and many will go toward recruiting senior faculty to Illinois in these research areas.
  • Funds to support research in big data and bioengineering across the college will also be available. These funds are not tied to the endowed faculty positions, but will be available to any faculty member working in one or both of these areas.
  • Funding for undergraduate scholarships will be provided.
  • Once the new ECE building has been completed and ECE has moved to its new home, this initiative will provide funds that will go toward the renovation of Everitt Lab to be a home for the Department of Bioengineering as well as other research units.

The Grainger Engineering Breakthroughs Initiative promises to be transformative across the College of Engineering. The work that is already going on in ECE in the areas of big data and bioengineering promises to keep this department at the forefront of these fields and grow its international stature and impact.  

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This story was published February 18, 2013.