Cunningham invested as Donald Biggar Willett Professor

ECE News

Meg Dickinson, ECE ILLINOIS
3/4/2015

Story Highlights

  • The professorship recognizes Cunningham's intellectual leadership and outstanding research.
  • Cunningham's long and varied career has taken him from building biosensors for defense applications to those focused on human health.
  • Cunningham said he was humbled, and grateful for his colleagues in the College of Engineering, especially in ECE ILLINOIS and the Department of Bioengineering.

Brian T Cunningham was invested as a Donald Biggar Willett Professor of Engineering in a ceremony Feb. 26 on the Illinois campus.

The professorship recognizes Cunningham's intellectual leadership and outstanding research.

“Brian embodies many points of pride for our department,” Department Head William H Sanders, also a  Willett professor, said at the ceremony. “He earned three degrees at ECE ILLINOIS, and was advised by the esteemed Greg Stillman. He’s had great success as an entrepreneur, researcher, faculty member, and as a leader on our campus and in the fields of optics and the development of biosensors.”

Sanders also praised Cunningham’s long and varied career, which took him from building biosensors for defense applications to those focused on human health.

“Losing both of his parents to cancer was one reason he decided to re-examine his career goals to focus on human health, especially for detecting and fighting cancer,” Sanders said. “Brian cares deeply about his field, and about making scientific contributions. That love brought him back to the Illinois campus and subsequently, to the work that has set him apart from his peers.”

Cunningham is internationally recognized for his contributions to the advancement of photonic crystal-based biosensing. His work has allowed for the detection of cancer cells, including early-stage breast cancer; as well as the amount of HIV virus present in the human body. It also allows for detecting allergens in food, including trace amounts of peanuts, which could save the lives of those who have severe allergies. His work also has agriculture-related applications, such as rapid screening for soybean pests and new DNA microarray technology for the determination of the corn genome.

His goal is to create simple, portable, and inexpensive instruments, and he has developed sensors to work with smartphones to allow for biodetection in the field. Developing a smartphone cradle to do this work was an achievement in itself — it includes about $200 worth of optical components and provides results as accurate as those from a $50,000 lab spectrophotometer — and he is now seeking ways to use a smartphone as a biosensing device with no additional hardware required.

Cunningham is also known for his interdisciplinary spirit — he is a faculty member in the Department of Bioengineering and is affiliated with the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology, as well as the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology. He was named director of the Micro and Nanotechnology Laboratory earlier this month. He’s also an entrepreneur, founding SRU Biosystems in 2000 and Exalt Diagonostics (for which he licensed Illinois technology) in 2012.

At the ceremony, Cunningham said he was humbled, and grateful for his colleagues in the College of Engineering, especially in ECE ILLINOIS and the Department of Bioengineering.

He sees a goal in helping students understand their own potential. As a senior in ECE ILLINOIS considering graduate school, he remembers Professor Emeritus Jim Coleman’s words of encouragement: “He told me, I owed it to the world to go to graduate school.” He wants students to learn something from that lesson.

“Be ambitious,” he advised them, adding that they’ll need to learn to work through tedious work and hurdles to move mountains. “You owe it to the world to try to change things."

He also hopes to instill in his students the knowledge, inspiration, and passion he learned from his adviser, Professor Greg Stillman, as well as from Nick Holonyak Jr., during his time as a student.

“I hope I can channel just a fraction of what I learned from them to the students I have now,” Cunningham said.

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