Meet the Next Builder of Berkeley Bioengineering

New bioengineering department chair, Matthew Tirrell, enjoys traveling, golf and cooking in his spare time. PHOTO CINDY MANLY-FIELDSNew bioengineering department chair, Matthew Tirrell, enjoys traveling, golf and cooking in his spare time. (Photo by Cindy Manly-Fields.)After 32 years at other universities, Matthew Tirrell joined Berkeley in July, and from his new Stanley Hall office, he ruminates on the job he’s just taken, that of Department of Bioengineering chair.

“An academic administrator does three things,” he explains. “Managing—that’s making sure things run right and the rules are being followed, but it doesn’t require creativity. A chair’s creativity is needed when faculty members want help getting their ideas enacted—that’s enabling. And sometimes a chair gets a good idea of his or her own and has a chance to lead. Managing is fine, but I like enabling and leading best. I’d like to help this department define what it could be.”

Tirrell has several ideas pulled from his abundant experience. At the University of Minnesota, he spent 22 years in chemical engineering and materials science, where he served as head of the department from 1995 to 1999 and director of the Biomedical Engineering Institute from 1993 to 1996.

Most recently, he spent a decade as engineering dean at UC Santa Barbara. Within Harold Frank Hall, Tirrell helped improve the Santa Barbara campus’s rankings, increase its research funding and establish new programs. He takes the helm just as Berkeley Bioengineering enters its eleventh year.

The college’s youngest department has accomplished a great deal in that time. Its undergraduate program is now third largest in the College of Engineering at more than 425 students, and the average incoming GPA of admitted freshmen has consistently been higher than the college average. Enrollment in the graduate program, administered jointly with UC San Francisco’s Department of Bioengineering and Therapeutic Sciences, has tripled. At the same time, the department has grown from two core faculty members to 17. Professors have honed their research into five specialty areas: bioinstrumentation, biomaterials and nanotechnology, cell and tissue engineering, computational biology, and systems and synthetic biology.

The campus hired Tirrell, who succeeds Dorian Liepmann, professor of bioengineering and mechanical engineering, to build on that success. Amid unpacked boxes and bookshelves waiting to be filled, Tirrell outlines his goals.

Traditionally, he explains, bioengineering departments fall into two camps: biomedical engineering (medical devices and diagnostics) and biological engineering (engineering within the full spectrum of living systems). “We’re going to pull in the best of both worlds—Berkeley’s rich basic biology and its very special connection to UC San Francisco School of Medicine—and make something unique here,” he says. “A third way.”

For faculty, he’d like to grow the core from 17 to 25 members within five to 10 years. He also wants to spearhead the department’s pursuit of multimillion-dollar, multi-investigator grants, with the goal of establishing internal research and funding capabilities that address a broad array of problems: medicine and global health care, energy, agriculture and nutrition, for example. That way, faculty members with a good idea can launch their research immediately without having to wait months to learn if their idea will be funded by an outside agency.

For undergraduates, Tirrell wants to increase opportunities to participate in clinical research and development and move the undergraduate program within U.S. News and World Report’s top 10. (It’s currently ranked 14th.)

“One of the main things you have to do to improve rankings is capture the attention of the field,” Tirrell explains. “People have to be saying, ‘Wow!’ Some of that isn’t purely technical in nature. Maybe we host the next major biomedical engineering meeting. That has tremendous public relations value. I’m also thinking about how to better use our industrial advisory boards so they will buy into Berkeley Bioengineering and tell others about it. And we haven’t had an academic advisory board in this department, ever. I think there would be some good public relations benefits to that as well.”

Unafraid to take creative, new steps, Tirrell says this is the right job for him at the right time. “I’ve always been more interested in the caliber of the institution and the opportunities it presents than the title,” he says, explaining his motivation for taking the department chair job after being dean at another UC campus. “I have loved every job I have had in academic life. If I were really eager to become a university president, I would have started down that path earlier in my career. What I wanted was to re-immerse myself in research full time. And that’s when the conversation with Berkeley and [Dean] Shankar Sastry began.”

Tirrell is an eminent polymer scientist who leads the evolving field of soft materials, especially in adhesion and biomolecular materials. He holds Berkeley’s endowed Arnold and Barbara Silverman Professorship in bioengineering, materials science and engineering and chemical engineering.

So far, Tirrell is impressed with Berkeley’s long tradition of excellence, its strong alumni base and its geographical proximity to major technology and biotech companies. “For me, this is a chance to be a faculty member again,” he adds, “and to use my administrative background to build a young department that has tremendous talent and move it to a more distinctive level in the field.”