Newest building on campus is designed from the ground up to foster collaboration

When you hear about a venerated university, you typically hear about its most celebrated academic unit: a renowned business school or a leading engineering program. Rarely, though, will you hear about how the university merges disparate disciplines to create new modes of thinking, address complex real-world problems or foster research breakthroughs. This is yet another way UCI was designed to be a unique institution.

As Chancellor Howard Gillman explains, most university campuses are built around a “quad,” with similar academic departments grouped together. Humanities occupy one corner of the central square, hard sciences another – with little or no connection between them.

However, Gillman says:

“Our visionary founders recognized that the kind of problems confronting the world had grown larger and more complex than the old quadrangle model could handle and that the kind of progress the world needed and was demanding depended on the ability of discrete disciplines to collaborate. So UCI was built around a circle, not a square, to facilitate and encourage faculty to work across disciplinary boundaries and, in effect, to create new disciplines.”

Proof that interdisciplinary innovation is in UCI's DNA

Ever since UCI was founded – and built around a circle, not the typical college quadrangle – the university has shown a commitment to bringing together different academic disciplines to share knowledge for the benefit of society. A few examples:

The Department of Earth System Science

Founded in 1995, this first-of-its-kind university department unites many distinct but related scientific disciplines – oceanography, fire science, ecophysiology, glaciology, etc. – to address the complex environmental challenges facing the planet.

The Susan Samueli Integrative Health Institute

More recently, thanks to the support of Susan and Henry Samueli, UCI built what is already becoming the leading institute devoted to making integrative medicine a mainstream component of providers’ care, medical schools’ curricula and the general public’s toolkit for achieving a healthy life.

As with so many UCI initiatives, the institute, which was established in 2001, leverages the benefits of interdisciplinary collaboration – both to foster medical advancements in the future and to improve patients’ lives today. In fact, UCI’s Susan Samueli Integrative Health Institute is the only university health center actively promoting patient care coordination between integrative and conventional health practitioners.

The Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Building

The latest example of UCI’s commitment to cross-disciplinary learning and research, the new Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Building brings together researchers from a wide range of fields – including biology, mathematics, engineering and climate science – to tackle the world’s most vexing problems, from life-threatening diseases to global climate change.

The work in this new building will focus on major challenges in the areas of energy, water, climate, environment and health, including such pressing issues as California’s wildfires and COVID-19. Researchers will creatively combine and deeply integrate knowledge bases, tools of discovery, techniques of analysis and synthesis, and modes of thinking. 

The ISEB’s Climate, Energy and Water Solutions hub will explore strategies to better manage greenhouse gas emissions and the global transition to renewable energy. CLEWS faculty consist of chemists, Earth scientists and engineers united in their aim to advance solutions-oriented science to address climate change.

Jenny Yang, an associate professor of chemistry, said that the move into the new building by her team – two postdoctoral scholars, nine Ph.D. students and three undergraduate researchers – will facilitate a deep dive into the fundamental science of sustainable technology and decarbonization.

“Our current work centers on carbon dioxide capture and concentration from air and generating carbon-neutral fuels from renewable sources of electricity,” she says. “The frontiers of energy research and bioinorganic chemistry require collaborations, so our interdisciplinary interactions with biochemists, bioengineers and electrochemists will be greatly enhanced by our presence in the ISEB.”

Another of the ISEB’s first residents is Dr. Albert R. La Spada, director of UCI’s Institute for Neurotherapeutics. He’s leading a 14-person research team that will apply several different medical disciplines in addressing neurodegenerative diseases such as spinal and bulbar muscular atrophy, Huntington’s and Parkinson’s.

Here’s how La Spada describes why he’s so optimistic about being able to leverage the interdisciplinary approach afforded to his research group, and many others, by the new ISEB:

“I believe that in order for biological and biomedical research to move forward more rapidly, we need to integrate physical science, engineering, and computational and applied mathematics approaches into our experimentation, and I cannot think of a better way. This really is the future for our field."

Here’s one more example of how the ISEB promises major scientific advancements for the future. Xiangmin Xu, professor of anatomy & neurobiology and director of UCI’s Center for Neural Circuit Mapping, is moving into the building with a team of 18 researchers hoping to help unravel the mechanisms underlying several common disorders, including lazy eye and Alzheimer’s disease.

Xiangmin Xu 2 .jpg

As Xu explains: “Our goal is to reveal the molecular changes that occur during the course of Alzheimer’s, impacting learning and memory, and identify a route toward early detection and new drug therapies for the disease."