Alumnus Milan Mrksich (BS, '88) has been named Northwestern University's vice president for research following a nationwide search.
A senior researcher with appointments in biomedical engineering, chemistry and cell and developmental biology at Northwestern, Mrksich took over as interim vice president for research on Oct. 1, 2019, and was officially named to the position on May 14, 2020.
Mrksich joined Northwestern in 2011 from the University of Chicago, strengthening Northwestern’s presence in chemistry, nanosciences, and bioengineering and giving the synthetic biology program a major lift, according to the university’s announcement.
Mrksich worked for years to develop a technology that measures biochemical reactions at an unprecedented throughput. The technology, which he dubbed SAMDI, or self-assembled monolayers desorption ionization, addressed a significant need in early-stage drug development. This method can evaluate millions of chemicals to identify those that are active in blocking protein function and that serve as a starting point for developing drug candidates that enter clinical trials.
“My program combines new scientific insights with engineering approaches to develop solutions to important biomedical challenges,” Mrksich said. “For example, my lab’s development of the SAMDI mass spectrometry method gives a ‘label-free’ method for analyzing reactions, which now allows tens of thousands of reactions to be performed per day. This technology has been commercialized and is now used throughout the pharmaceutical industry to support early-stage drug discovery.”
Mrksich will lead Northwestern’s Office for Research, which includes directing a research infrastructure with annual sponsored research funding totaling $798.3 million in 2019. He also will lead the development and implementation of university-wide strategic plans that support high-impact research initiatives.
As interim, Mrksich has led the university’s research portfolio during the COVID-19 pandemic, working with his leadership team to oversee adjustments in research activity during the outbreak to maintain essential laboratory and administrative services and is now planning for the transition of research back to campus.
“Milan has shown tremendous leadership during this unprecedented time when groundbreaking research is more important than ever,” said President Schapiro. “Right now, Milan is taking a proactive approach to intensify our research to combat COVID-19 while ensuring the University continues to uphold its rigorous, high-quality research standards.”
Mrksich has appointments in the departments of Biomedical Engineering, Chemistry and Cell & Developmental Biology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, McCormick School of Engineering and Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. He is founding director of the Center for Synthetic Biology and a leader in developing surface chemistries for a range of applications in the life sciences.
Interim Provost Hagerty is pleased Mrksich has agreed to stay in the position.
“Milan has been an excellent leader, and not only will he provide important stability and continuity for our research enterprise in this unprecedented time, but he will foster innovation to help ensure Northwestern remains at the forefront of transformative research and discovery,” Hagerty said.
With his lab, Mrksich has published more than 200 papers and presented approximately 500 invited lectures on his work. Among the awards he has earned are the Searle Scholar Award, the Sloan Research Fellowship, the Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Award, the American Chemical Society Arthur C. Cope Scholar Award, the iCON Innovator Award, and the Pittsburgh Analytical Chemistry Award. He also is a fellow of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering and of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
In addition to his work at Northwestern, Mrksich has contributed to national service, including having served as chair of the Defense Sciences Research Council, which is an advisory board to DARPA; on the Board of Governors for Argonne National Laboratory; scientific director of the Searle Scholars Program; and the chair of multiple National Institutes of Health study sections.
As founding director of the Center for Synthetic Biology, Mrksich has helped oversee work on a new field that is learning how to engineer biology’s approaches for new purposes, including the green manufacture of chemicals, development of next generation therapeutics, and sensors for a variety of purposes.
In addition, he also has served as the associate director for technology in the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center, where he worked to ensure that state-of-the-art instrumentation and techniques are available to the Northwestern research community.
His roles in the cancer center, on many committees and his extensive collaborative research with other faculty, have given Mrksich a broad perspective on the strengths and opportunities for advancing Northwestern’s research programs.
Mrksich earned his BS in chemistry, magna cum laude, from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, in 1989. He earned his PhD in organic chemistry from the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California, in 1994 and served as a postdoctoral scholar at Harvard University before beginning his independent career at the University of Chicago in 1996.
Mrksich lives in Hinsdale with his family and enjoys playing guitar, traveling and attending Northwestern football games.