STATE-OF-THE-ART laboratories, modern teaching facilities, and a social space at the heart of the building, the new home for the department of chemical engineering and biotechnology (CEB) at the UK’s University of Cambridge is primed for the next generation of students and researchers.
Previously spread across three buildings in the city centre, the new building brings the department together under one roof at the spacious West Cambridge site. The building was officially opened on 24 April by Lord Sainsbury of Turville, chancellor of the University of Cambridge. “What is remarkable about Cambridge is not just that it’s been a continuing system for eight centuries, but that today it’s as successful as it’s ever been,” said Lord Sainsbury, speaking at the opening event. “Cambridge recognises the scale of the challenges it faces to remain among the best universities in the world. One of the most significant of those challenges is to find the resources to keep our scientific research facilities up to date. It is therefore with great pride and confidence in the future, that I look around this newly-created, world-class facility.”
After the building was officially declared open, John Dennis, professor of chemical reaction engineering and head of the department, spoke about the significance of the new building.
“The infrastructure of the new building is far better than the old, and it is much appreciated by students, especially the opportunities for small group teaching and more prosaically, the ability to have breakfast before lectures.”
“Increasingly, CEB has become a fertile ground for scientific innovation built on fundamental knowledge in the fields of materials, measurement science, reaction engineering, and modelling. Undoubtedly, CEB’s most important asset is its people. A remarkable feature since I was a student in Pembroke Street, quite a long time ago now, is the diversity and educational background in academics and researchers, ranging from neuroscience on one extreme to conventional chemical engineering at the other.”
Dennis then raised a toast for the new building, and the speeches were followed by the opportunity for coffee, cake, and a chat in the impressive Wolfson Atrium, the all-important social area in the centre of the building.
I caught up with Dennis, who explained how the layout of the new building, which has large open-plan offices with windows overlooking the atrium, is a big improvement for the department.
“I think the thing that’s important about the new building is that it’s a building where you bump into people. It dismantles the culture of sending an email to someone who sits next door – you much more feel like going and just talking to them. It’s been designed around that focus, being able to discuss things, and particularly of course to discuss research. We have such a wide range of researchers and different disciplines, and that sort of activity generates new ideas for research.”
The building has two main lecture theatres, various break-out rooms, and an impressive array of laboratories.
“We have substantially improved laboratories over what we had before, but we’ve also got other things. There are special cleanroom facilities for undertaking microfabrication type activities. We’ve got much-enhanced biological facilities and the magnetic resonance hall is substantial. So we can do various things that we couldn’t do before but I think just the ability to have all the researchers under one roof is important.”
The new facilities will also allow for expansion of partnerships with industry and enhance the possibilities for potential spin-out companies.
“Part of the strategic mission is obviously to continue with our existing industry partnerships, but also to establish more of what I call strategic partnerships. These are long term relationships and we currently have a few of these with particular companies but we would like to expand these. Some problems that industry has, we can tackle. Others we can’t, but it’s very strategic discussions and relationships that we want to expand. A major focus for us is the impact of our research and because the local ‘ecosystem’ fosters quite a lot of spin-out activity, relationships with small companies and also relationships with companies that we are spinning out are all important things to us.”
Attendees at the opening event had plenty of choice when it came to activities to experience the new building. There were numerous displays throughout the building with students and postdocs showcasing their research. Tours allowed for a look into the numerous laboratories, and researchers explained their work to visitors with poster presentations. There are 26 different research groups at CEB and the variety of work undertaken is truly staggering, from the latest MOF technology and methods for producing sustainable hydrogen, to polymeric heart valves and identification of biomarkers for psychiatric disorders.
In the afternoon there were several themed mini research talks given by the department’s academics. Gabi Kaminski from the molecular neuroscience group spoke about The Link Between Alzheimer’s Disease, Wiggling of Earthworms, and Headers. The group is studying the molecular mechanisms involved in neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Huntington’s.
She spoke about the two proteins thought to be related to Alzheimer’s, Amyloid and Tau, and how the group’s work involves trying to understand how the proteins ‘misfold’ and clump together, ultimately causing cell death. Using newly-available super resolution microscopy at CEB, they have been able to observe the nanoscale structures of these proteins, revealing how they become transported from one neuron to another. They are also using earthworms as a means for studying the progression of neurodegenerative diseases, as the worm’s short lifespan (around 15 days) makes them ideal for studying diseases associated with ageing. The group is also studying the link between head injuries in footballers and Alzheimer’s symptoms by using microfluidics to track the spread of the Tau protein between cells.
Róisín Owens from the bioelectronics systems technology (BEST) group then spoke about engineering the microbiome and trying to understand the balance of microbes in the human body – and in particular, studying the “gut-brain microbiome axis” and the connections between the two.
Patrick Barrie, senior lecturer and deputy head of the department (teaching), gave an entertaining overview of the history of teaching at Cambridge along with details of the courses being taught today.
He started by showing an extract from a letter written in January 1945 from the Shell Group to the vice chancellor of the university, drawing attention to the need for a faculty of chemical engineering as facilities in other countries were, at the time, more advanced than those in the UK. Barrie highlighted the interesting wording of the letter, as the Shell Group sought the “co-operation” of the university by offering a sum of £62,000 per year for a period of seven years – giving a total which is the equivalent of £72m (US$101m) in today’s currency. Shell also offered a further £2,500 per year in scholarship funding. “This was a lot of money for a company in the second world war, without strings attached,” Barrie commented.
The letter concluded with: “May I be permitted to hope that this plea for the co-operation of Cambridge University and the offer that goes with it, can be translated into practical action at no distant date, with the object of announcing that the new School of Chemical Engineering will be inaugurated at Cambridge University.”
The ‘plea’ with the large sum of money and the ambitious start date brought a chuckle from the audience. “It didn’t succeed the next October, but we did manage to do it in a three-year timeframe and the department started in 1948,” said Barrie.
He then described what he imagined the early teaching was like, writing an equation on the board while humming to himself and then asked in an accusing tone which member of the audience was going to fill in the right-hand side. (Since it was the Navier-Stokes equation, he was confident that many members of the audience would be able to finish it.) “The early teaching might have been like that. We tend not to do it that way anymore, we tend to do it with handouts and fancy slides and look after our individuals”.
He displayed plots of the number of undergraduate students over time while describing the influence that various heads of department had over the years, as well as the progress of the department, such as the introduction of a digital computer in 1960, and that in 1974 students were permitted to use calculators in exams. “You may ask, what did students do before pocket calculators?,” said Barrie, producing the slide rule that he had used in the early 1970s. He also showed a 1902 cylindrical slide rule which was owned by the first head of the department, Terrence Fox.
Speaking on the broadening of subject areas within the university, he said: “people began to realise that biotechnology and biochemical engineering were important areas. The first time I found a record of biotechnology being taught was in 1980 when we started teaching that within the chemical engineering tripos [undergraduate exams]”.
In 1988 the university formed the Institute of Biotechnology and in 2008 it merged with the department of chemical engineering. However, as the department was scattered across three buildings, it became evident that a new building was needed. The department has gone from four academic staff in the 1940s to around 30 today, and with the “sensible layout” in the new building it will be possible to increase student numbers.
The department has come a long way since that letter from Shell in 1945 prompted the birth of chemical engineering at Cambridge. Bringing together the department of chemical engineering and biotechnology under one roof will undoubtedly lead to a bright future for both students and staff, with many unforeseen discoveries along the way.