The Parker H. Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Bioscience was launched in 1995 with the mission to accelerate Georgia Tech’s move into bio-related research. The decision to establish the Petit Institute was made in 1993 by then Georgia Tech President Pat Crecine. The departure of Crecine in 1994 presented some concern as to whether the new president would support the establishment of a research institute such as this. With the arrival of President Wayne Clough in September 1994, it was immediately clear that Clough would not only support the establishment of the Petit Institute, he would take the Institute’s commitment of support to a higher level.
Prior to 1985, research efforts in bioengineering and the life sciences at Georgia Tech were very fragmented, with islands of activity existing in various departments. The most notable activity was that in biochemistry in the School of Chemistry and Biochemistry. Biology was principally a teaching unit, and there were only a few bioengineers on campus, although several had already achieved national recognition. In 1985 the Bioengineering Center was formed, and this was followed in 1987 with the establishment of the Emory/Georgia Tech Biomedical Technology Research Center.
Beginning in 1988, an ad-hoc group of biochemistry and bioengineering faculty members began meeting on a regular basis to discuss mutual interests and to promote the development of institutional initiatives whereby bioengineering and the life sciences could become more closely associated with each other. From this ad-hoc group, a formal cross-disciplinary committee eventually emerged, and this committee's activities laid the early groundwork for the development of the Petit Institute. In 1993 Georgia Tech received a Whitaker Foundation Biomedical Engineering Development Award. At that time only four other institutional awards had been given, and Georgia Tech's program, in receiving this award, was not only selected for further expansion, but was identified as a place that could develop one of the top programs in the country.
The Whitaker Award helped the Georgia Tech faculty and administration develop a new Bioengineering Ph.D. program, which was approved in late 1994 by the University System of Georgia Board of Regents. Funds from the Whitaker Award were also used to recruit new faculty members and to provide graduate student support. The Whitaker Development Award Committee catalyzed the adoption of the organizational structure for bioengineering at Georgia Tech that exists today. During a site visit, members of the Whitaker Foundation visiting committee repeatedly pressed the issue of Georgia Tech’s need for a bioengineering department. The response of Georgia Tech, led by then President Pat Crecine, was that such a department was a possibility in the future, but not at that time. Crecine in fact said that “we will build bioengineering at Georgia Tech not by creating a new ‘silo’, but by tearing down the walls between the existing ‘silos’". With this philosophy, the early organizational structure for bioengineering at Georgia Tech became a key component of the Petit Institute.
Life science research at Georgia Tech has also evolved greatly since its early days. As noted above, the biochemistry faculty was a notable strength on campus, and in 1975 the School of Chemistry established a Biochemistry Division with a full graduate program, representing the first biosciences Ph.D. program at Georgia Tech. The number of faculty members in this school conducting bio-related research has expanded markedly during the past several years, with the addition of investigators active in the areas of macromolecular structure & function, biophysical and bioanalytical chemistry, bioorganic chemistry and molecular biology. Biochemistry now represents one of the strongest components within the School of Chemistry and Biochemistry.
Concomitant with these developments, significant change has also occurred in the School of Biology, which established its first Ph.D. program in 1984. The School of Biology today is well along the path of making the transition from a teaching unit to a department with both substantial and balanced teaching and research activities, as befitting a research university. A Biosciences Center, formerly called the Biotechnology Research Center, also developed, providing centralized instrumentation facilities and biochemical synthesis and analysis services.
When Wayne Clough arrived as president in 1994, physical space was a critical issue for the Petit Institute. With the Whitaker Development Award a total of $3 million was available to renovate space for the Petit Institute in an existing building on campus. However, it became clear that $8 million was actually needed for the planned renovation. In the fall of 1994 President Clough decided that, in place of the renovation of space, we should construct an $11 million addition to the Paul Weber Building. Over the next 12 months this plan was pursued; however, in December 1995 President Clough decided that there needed to be a different and more ambitious plan. As he said at that time, “Why would we want to build an $11 million addition on an old building in a crowded area of campus?” What emerged as the revised plan was a new biotechnology complex for Georgia Tech on the north side of campus, with the the Petit Institute building being the cornerstone of the complex.
In 1996, thanks to the generosity of Parker H. (Pete) Petit, a Tech alumnus, the Institute for Bioengineering and Bioscience was provided with a $5 million endowment. In recognition of this gift, the name of the Institute was changed to the Parker H. Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Bioscience and a new chapter in the Institute's history had begun. The Petit Institute building opened in July 1999. The building and plan for occupation was unique on campus, being designed to foster interdisciplinary research, bringing together biochemists, bioengineers, and biologists. Space was assigned not on the basis of department affiliation, but on research interests, with every research “neighborhood” having faculty members and students from multiple disciplines.
The Petit Institute building has a beautiful atrium that provides the “vertical integration” necessary to facilitate interaction among the three floors of the building. This atrium is graced with a striking collection of artwork, including a 24-foot high mural that depicts the variety of cells found within the human body. The atrium walls on all three floors are decorated with artwork by the late, world-famous scientific illustrator, Irving Geiss (a former Georgia Tech student), and these illustrations bring to life many structural aspects of biological macromolecules.
There have been other major events in building the Petit Institute and bio-related activities at Georgia Tech. These include the establishment in 1997 of the joint Georgia Tech/Emory Wallace Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering and in 1998 of the Georgia Tech/Emory Center for the Engineering of Living Tissues (GTEC), a National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center. These developments not only strengthened our partnership with Emory University, but also expanded the faculty and, with the coordinated support of the Georgia Research Alliance, allowed for the establishment of extensive core facilities in the Petit Institute.
External support for biological and biomedical research has grown tremendously over the past decade with more than $20 million received last year. Active areas of research by the Petit Institute participating faculty members include: structural biology, blood flow dynamics, cellular biomechanics, imaging, medical devices, molecular genetics of both bacterial and eukaryotic cells, signal transduction for animal and plant cells, soft and hard tissue mechanics, the synthesis and modification of small molecules (e.g. for use as enzyme inhibitors), anti-cancer and anti-AIDS compounds, neuropeptide analogs, tissue engineering, spinal injury, diabetes, musculoskeletal disorders, and vascular disease.
Looking back over the past decade, the Petit Institute has played an important role not only in facilitating the emergence of these and other specific research areas but also in seeding the tremendous growth in bioengineering and life sciences research across the Georgia Tech campus. Membership in the Petit Institute has grown to a current level of over 170 faculty members representing eight different academic units on campus. Looking forward, the Petit Institute’s role must evolve to serve a broader community and promote connectivity to external partners in order to enhance Georgia Tech’s ability to identify and cultivate emergent areas of bio-related research.