ISEC opening ushers in new era of discovery at Northeastern

Northeastern President Joseph E. Aoun leads a ribbon cutting on Monday morning at an event to officially open the Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Complex. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

“A research village.” “The hub of scientific breakthroughs and innovative engineering.” “A world-class design.” “A milestone for Northeastern.”

The university ushered in a new era of transformative research on Monday with the official opening of Northeastern’s state-of-the-art Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Complex, an architectural marvel designed to spur innovation, collaboration, and scientific breakthroughs for years to come.

News@Northeastern covered ISEC’s opening with a liveblog throughout the day.

Members of the Northeastern and local communities, elected officials, and champions of science research gathered for the ceremony, which filled ISEC’s atrium with visitors and was viewed by thousands more online. The event featured powerful talks that emphasized the value of fostering and funding science, interactive exhibits featuring the university’s robotics research, and presentations highlighting the breadth and depth of Northeastern’s research in health, security, and sustainability—the university’s three research pillars.

President Joseph E. Aoun noted that ISEC will energize faculty and students to pave the way for breakthroughs and the discovery of new fields. “The statement we’re making is that yes, we believe in use-inspired research, in research that has an impact,” Aoun said. He shared a personal story of coming to the U.S. as an immigrant to follow his academic pursuits. Having been born in Lebanon and studied in France, English was his third language. But rather than be questioned, he was embraced in America. ISEC, he said, is the embodiment of a nation built on the notion of “bringing the best minds in the world to stay here, to work here, to make it their home, and also to give back.”

U.S. Sen. Elizabeth A. Warren and other elected officials thanked Northeastern for its commitment to building ISEC, and doggedly advocated the need to support scientific study and the researchers who pursue these cross-disciplinary endeavors.

Warren did not mince words regarding her support for research. “I just want to say something that is pretty deeply controversial down in Washington…I believe in science,” she said, “strong, independent science that asks the hard questions and goes wherever the data leads.”

She added: “This building is a testament to the university’s commitment to interdisciplinary research, to experiential learning, to the kind of work that strengthens our city, strengthens our commonwealth, strengthens our country, and that truly strengthens our world.”

The statement we’re making is that yes, we believe in use-inspired research, in research that has an impact.

Joseph E. Aoun, President of Northeastern University

France A. Córdova, director of the National Science Foundation and the ceremony’s keynote speaker, said Northeastern and the NSF share an interest in breaking down barriers between disciplines, fostering new collaborations aimed at solving great societal challenges, and educating the next generation of scientists and engineers.

Córdova recalled running the Boston Marathon in 1978—the same year Aoun arrived in America as a student. What she enjoyed most was the company of people who, like her, picked a pace at which they’d be able to finish the grueling event. She noted that this requires a “persistence of vision,” something she said was clearly evident in Northeastern’s building of ISEC.

“You have achieved something absolutely spectacular,” she said, “and the marathon is not finished.”

‘Hub of scientific breakthroughs and innovative engineering’

Other elected officials echoed these sentiments. “Building on Northeastern’s innovative approach to education, this complex creates learning opportunities that will exist only on this campus but whose impact will be felt far from it,” said U.S. Rep. Joseph Kennedy III. “Research carried out on these six floors will save lives across our country and around the world.”

U.S. Sen. Edward Markey delved into the scope of fields in which research at ISEC will make this impact. “You are going to help create the 21st-century infrastructure for our country in renewable energy, transportation, communications, health systems, climate change, coastal sustainability, cybersecurity—it’s all going to be housed here in one building.”

You have achieved something absolutely spectacular.

France A. Córdova, NSF Director

ISEC, he said, “promises to be the hub of scientific breakthroughs and innovative engineering for years to come,” adding that it builds upon Northeastern’s leadership in experiential education. In fact, he said, many students have worked in his offices in Massachusetts and Washington through the university’s renowned co-op program.

Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh recalled attending ISEC’s groundbreaking in February 2014, one of his first such ceremonies as mayor. The event, he said, offered a window into the power of research and higher education, and inspired him to put increased emphasis on attracting and retaining talent and elevating the city’s global standing.

“Many of the young people who are going to be educated in this very building are the exact people that we want to keep here in the city of Boston,” Walsh said, adding that ISEC will further inspire middle- and high-school students who may tour the space during summer programs on Northeastern’s campus.

Global vision, local roots

At ISEC, Northeastern researchers will collaborate with partners from academia, industry, and government to pursue use-inspired research that solves global challenges. But while that vision is global, ISEC will also strengthen Northeastern’s ties with the community. Locating the facility in Roxbury, Aoun said, was an essential part of the plan. Students from the The Edward M. Kennedy Academy for Health Careers, a local and college preparatory high school, where also in attendance. “Our roots are here, and will always remain here,” he said.

Aoun noted that scores of Northeastern community members collaborated on the vision for ISEC, and he particularly highlighted Provost Emeritus Stephen W. Director’s role in Northeastern realizing the transformative research complex.

The six-story building, designed by the architectural firm Payette and located on Columbus Avenue, features 230,000 square feet of research and educational space for the university to expand its capacity to engage in path-breaking interdisciplinary research. This research cuts across a range of fields, from community resilience, to cybersecurity, to coastal sustainability, to drug delivery.

As part of the event, faculty also led presentations on the university’s research in the areas of health, security, and sustainability while Roderic I. Pettigrew, founding director of the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering at the National Institutes of Health, led a panel discussion on the future of interdisciplinary research. The robotics research projects highlighted included a team led by associate professor Taskin Padir that is programming a NASA robot named Valkyrie to pave the way for human missions to Mars and professor Hanumant Singh’s autonomous underwater vehicles for research in extreme conditions.

James C. Bean, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, said ISEC continues Northeastern’s momentum in building its robust research enterprise. Over the past 10 years, he said, Northeastern’s federal research funding has more than doubled, now exceeding $130 million, and the university has recruited more than 565 new tenured and tenure-track faculty across disciplines tied to its research goals. Last year, Northeastern achieved the highest classification for research activity in the U.S., signaling the impact of the university’s strategic vision and investments over the past decade that have elevated Northeastern into a powerhouse on par with the nation’s elite research colleges and universities.

“ISEC will accelerate Northeastern’s momentum, particularly in areas of discovery where we are most likely to achieve eminence,” he said.

Following Bean in delivering remarks was Jaclyn Lock, a doctoral student in bioengineering. She said she was drawn to Northeastern for its strong training and research programs, and she emphasized the value of the opportunities she’s had to build upon her interdisciplinary research. Her research, under professor Rebecca Carrier, focuses on the link between the food we eat and our mucus production.

“ISEC was built to empower us to solve grand challenges,” Lock said. “It will help to advance not only my research but our research as a community.”