When Sarah Perry, a chemical engineer with a PhD in microfluidics, arrived at the University of Chicago in March 2012, the molecular engineering program was so new that the main building associated with it today—the William Eckhardt Research Center—was still being designed.
For Perry, who made the choice to change fields and work with Tirrell to expand her knowledge of a new area of science—polymers, self-assembling materials, and soft matter—this presented an ideal opportunity.
“I had the chance to learn from people who were much more familiar with this area, develop ideas, and build up for an independent career,” she said.
With ample excitement surrounding the brand-new school and the engineers who, like Perry, arrived on campus as a result, the possibilities were endless. Over the course of her two-and-a-half years as a postdoctoral researcher at UChicago, Perry planned and conducted fundamental lab studies, carried out across-the-spectrum research, and analyzed data. She and her contemporaries also had the unique opportunity to interface with people from the Biological Sciences Division, Physical Sciences Division, and the UChicago Medical Center.
“They were coming to us full of ideas,” Perry said. “There were open possibilities for doing science.”
When Perry left in August 2014 to work as an assistant professor in the Chemical Engineering Department at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, she quickly discovered the practical value of her postdoctoral experience.
“Being part of that first group of folks who started out the Tirrell Lab at the University of Chicago, we moved, had to buy equipment, and had to set stuff up,” she explained. “Those are all things that you have to do as a brand-new professor.”
Today, Perry is an associate professor at UMass Amherst with her own lab group, which works at the intersection of chemistry, biology, and engineering to address real-world challenges. Perry Lab uses self-assembly, molecular design, and microfluidic technologies for use in wide-ranging applications like examining the interplay between biomolecules and the environment.
“My favorite thing about UChicago was being part of that dense, interactive, collaborative community. I still remain in touch with colleagues I met there,” Perry said, adding that she looks forward to seeing them at professional conferences and events.