U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth encourages students to 'blur their boundaries' as they shape innovation in Illinois

9/15/2023 Aaron Seidlitz, Grainger College of Engineering

Duckworth spoke alongside Grainger Engineering Dean Rashid Bashir and faculty at a panel discussion describing a concept of technological advancement called "Beyond Silicon."

Written by Aaron Seidlitz, Grainger College of Engineering

Tammy Duckworth and Rashid Bashir
Dean Bashir pictured at a faculty panel discussion with Sen. Tammy Duckworth on September 8. 

Duckworth spoke alongside Grainger Engineering Dean Rashid Bashir and faculty at a panel discussion describing a concept of technological advancement called “Beyond Silicon.”

From United States Senator Tammy Duckworth’s vantage point – as she consistently connects what’s happening in technology and infrastructure advancements from around the world to the assets located in her home state of Illinois – a notion that can help shape student development at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign focuses on blurring their boundaries.

Duckworth visited campus on Friday, Sept. 8 and joined a faculty panel discussion hosted by the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research & Innovation at the Atkins Building east lawn found within Illinois’ Research Park. The panel discussion featured her, as well as The Grainger College of Engineering Dean Rashid Bashir and professors John Reid of Computer Science and Shaloo Rakheja of Electrical & Computer Engineering.

The discussion, titled “Beyond Silicon: Illinois Leadership in Emerging Technologies,” tapped into ways in which the United States can leverage newfound energy behind the CHIPS and Science Act of 2022 to forge a better future – not just by following new technological trends but by creating them ourselves.

And to do that, to meet the world’s needs and solve problems that can make our society better, Duckworth addressed the students in attendance with an idea that she hoped would inspire.

“Blur your boundaries,” she said. “Don’t think of a specific area as ‘my area.’ All around the world, tech is blurring the boundaries. I believe that if you allow yourself the opportunity to follow your own interest wherever it leads you, that space is where you will be the most productive.

“As a former soldier, I pay close attention to what industry and the Department of Defense do in spaces relevant to engineering. They are major drivers of initiatives like the next generation vertical lift aircraft. They’re thinking along the lines of how we can use AI and biology to allow a single pilot to control 10 separate aircraft. How that works; some of it is biology, some of it is technological. So, blur your boundaries.”

At Grainger Engineering, this concept manifests constantly.

Susan Martinis speaking at a podium
Susan Martinis, Vice Chancellor for Research & Innovation. 

Dean Bashir joined the panel discussion, because the idea of “Beyond Silicon” represents the kind of big and broad thinking that Grainger Engineers display in their ideas, their research, and their connections to industry partners.

“What the senator just expressed was so well said. We must think big, because we have so much potential, so much possibility, to use our skills,” Bashir said. “Grainger Engineering is a place where we recently marked the 75thanniversary of the transistor. We have a history that includes the MRI, the LED and YouTube. We’re humbled by this past, but we focus on the future.

“In that sense, silicon has brought us this far through many different technological advancements and uses. But the question the CHIPS Act has motivated us to answer, as we focus on bringing manufacturing back into the U.S., is what’s next? What’s next are components that can be added to silicon or may replace silicon one day. We are talking about biological computing. We are talking about blurring our boundaries.”

The next step to building this sort of concept within Grainger Engineering comes from taking new ideas developed by the exemplary students and faculty within Grainger Engineering and then connecting it to industry partners.

One faculty member who does this consistently is Rakheja, and one way she does exactly this is through the Center for Advanced Semiconductor Chips with Accelerated Performance (ASAP).

Rakheja’s focus with her students and collaborators at ASAP, is to tap into the National Science Foundation’s funding as an Industry-University Cooperative Research Center (IUCRC). Together with industry members, ASAP is working to develop new fundamental technology solutions encompassing work with advanced materials, advanced devices and circuits and advanced architectures to “holistically allow us to reduce” energy consumption by “a factor of a hundred.”

ASAP blurs more boundaries by functioning as a membership-based consortium, in which companies and other organizations pay annual dues to belong to the center.

“The way we usually approach the student experience in higher education is traditional; students take a major, take a series of classes, all of which have strict boundaries, and they leave with a degree,” Rakheja said. “But areas like computing, and energy and new technologies demand that we talk about those fields holistically.

“What I’ve found from companies participating in these efforts is that they are super enthusiastic about our students. Some of the biggest outcomes come from these interactions, and that’s why we recruit and train our students to take full responsibility of these opportunities.”

Reid hosted the panel discussion, which was introduced by Susan Martinis, Vice Chancellor for Research & Innovation, and Provost John Coleman.

It took place at Research Park, where the concept of blurring boundaries and making pertinent connections is the primary purpose.

After taking in all the atmosphere had to offer, Senator Duckworth couldn’t help but recall a selling point regarding why she believes innovation will continue to happen at Illinois.

“One thing I hear consistently from leaders of influential technology companies is that can’t hire enough engineers at new locations they are opening in the U.S. Well, I tell them I know of a place that’s graduating more engineers than MIT,” Duckworth said. “That’s what makes a research university like the University of Illinois so special; you are incubating the talent that will make innovation happen now and well into the future.”

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This story was published September 15, 2023.