Major alumni gift supports recently established Princeton Bioengineering Initiative

Written by
the Office of Engineering Communications
Sept. 14, 2021

A major gift from alumni will provide the Princeton Bioengineering Initiative funding to pursue some of the biggest questions and opportunities emerging at the intersection of biology and engineering.

The Gilbert S. Omenn, M.D, '61 and Martha A. Darling *70 Fund for Grand Challenges in Bioengineering will allow the recently created initiative to move rapidly on several fronts, including hiring post-doctoral investigators, seeding research, and starting a series of lectures on technical and societal frontiers of bioengineering.

"Research and innovation in bioengineering are going to yield incredible, transformative impacts over the next decades," said Clifford Brangwynne, the June K. Wu '92 Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering. "This gift from Martha and Gil comes at a key moment for Princeton Bioengineering, and will give us resources and flexibility to expand the scope of our growing program, to create new understanding and improve health for people and the environment, and to understand the broader societal implications."

Among the big questions that researchers will pursue are the genetic and cellular origins of disease and how to harness and manipulate cells to improve health. Scientists and engineers will also investigate how to use bioengineering to mitigate the world's environmental challenges. Brangwynne said that across these areas, further challenges are to maximize university-industry collaborations to speed innovation and to examine policy and ethical implications that arise from the work.

"With any technology, and certainly any technology that's about life and living systems, there will be impacts that we can't even see right now," Brangwynne said. "So we need ethicists, philosophers, public policy experts, government people, historians – everything to get the big picture of what it all means, which is something that Princeton is well suited to do."

Omenn and Darling, who are married, said the gift reflects their interest in identifying and supporting the greatest challenges emerging at the intersections of fields around science and engineering.

"Our message in creating this gift is to give Cliff, as director of the initiative, maximal flexibility," said Omenn, who graduated from Princeton in 1961 and has had a distinguished career as a physician, biomedical researcher and leader at the University of Washington and the University of Michigan. Darling earned a master's of public affairs from Princeton in 1970, worked in leadership roles at The Boeing Company and served in numerous national and state policy roles, including as a White House Fellow and member of the White House Commission on Presidential Scholars.

"We think this is an opportunity where Princeton has remarkable strengths and terrific young leaders," said Omenn, who is the Harold T. Shapiro Distinguished University Professor at the University of Michigan.

Princeton established the Princeton Bioengineering Initiative in 2020, naming Brangwynne as the inaugural director. Brangwynne has been widely recognized for discovering previously unknown structures within cells that affect a wide range of basic functions in living organisms. He is a Howard Hughes Medical Investigator, one of the highest honors in biomedicine, and has been honored with a MacArthur Fellowship and numerous other prestigious awards.

During his career, Omenn also was a Howard Hughes Medical Investigator, at the University of Washington, and served in national policy roles, as a White House Fellow in the Nixon/Ford Administration and as associate director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and then of the Office of Management and Budget in the Carter Administration. In 1997 he was appointed CEO of the University of Michigan Health System, and in 2005 founded Michigan's Center for Computational Medicine & Bioinformatics, which he continues to lead.

Omenn and Darling have given previously to Princeton, including gifts for the SINSI Program (Scholars in the Nation’s Service) at the School of Public and International Affairs and to create the Gilbert S. Omenn Lectures in Science, Technology, and Public Policy.

"Gil and Martha exemplify the deep thinking, broad intersectional interests, leadership and service that make Princeton alumni special," said Andrea Goldsmith, dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science. "The Bioengineering Initiative has the potential to completely transform medicine and health, which aligns perfectly with the impact Gil and Martha would like to have.  I am so grateful to them for their generosity and vision that will allow the initiative to pursue the most important grand challenges in bioengineering. I look forward to working with Cliff to leverage their support and maximize the initiative's contributions for humanity."

This article was originally published on the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences website.