Research Science and Technology

The Frost Institute for Chemistry and Molecular Science aims to power innovation at the molecular level

Faculty members are moving into the Frost Institute for Chemistry and Molecular Science this fall, a building designed to fuel collaboration and highlight groundbreaking research.
The Frost Institute for Chemistry and Molecular Science, a building designed to fuel collaboration and showcase groundbreaking research. Photo: Joshua Prezant/University of Miami
The highly specialized, 94,000-square-foot Frost Institute for Chemistry and Molecular Science will focus on research at the molecular level. Photo: Joshua Prezant/University of Miami

Faculty members recently began moving their labs into the new Phillip and Patricia Frost Institute for Chemistry and Molecular Science, widely considered as a focal point for new research and discovery. A scientific grand opening is expected in the spring.

Supported by a generous donation from benefactors Phillip and Patricia Frost, who were honored at an Oct. 20 Board of Trustees dinner at the facility, the columned six-story edifice is located at the end of Memorial Drive, between the McArthur Engineering Building and the Ashe Administration Building. A series of Frost Institutes, modeled after the National Institutes of Health, will focus on the intersection of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—a key initiative of the University’s strategic Roadmap to Our New Century that was set in motion through a $100 million donation from the Frosts in 2017.

“This Frost Institute will enable the University of Miami to elevate our research capabilities and delve into projects at the forefront of the chemistry, molecular science, environmental and biomedical fields, and ultimately, to translate their ideas into important global solutions,” said Jeffrey Duerk, executive vice president for academic affairs and provost. “Since chemistry and molecular science are critical to the foundation for so many other fields, we hope that faculty and students across the U will take advantage of this incredible resource and get involved in the cutting-edge interdisciplinary research that is about to begin.”

The highly specialized, 94,000-square-foot facility will focus on research at the molecular level, often invisible to the human eye without microscopes. But by viewing cells and particles and examining their structure at tiny scales, Frost Institute researchers will be able to learn about and experiment with different treatments for diseases and illnesses by testing which chemical compounds can bind to those cells. This is a crucial step in the development of novel medical treatments and therapeutics, said Dr. Mark Yeager, the institute’s executive director, who is also a cardiologist and professor of chemistry, biochemistry, and molecular biology.

The building's labs will also enable scientists to examine metals and alloys at the molecular level to develop, for example, new computer chips or batteries for electric cars, Yeager noted.

“Students really want to make their work relevant and have it impact the human condition, and I feel the same way,” Yeager said. “I love science, but it manifests so much more meaning if you can see how molecular drug design can help people improve their lives.”

Before coming to the U, Yeager led the University of Virginia School of Medicine’s Department of Molecular Physiology and Biological Physics for 11 years. He also helped establish the Sheridan G. Snyder Translational Research Building, which had a similar focus to his new role. Throughout his career, Yeager learned the power of collaboration, and he said that he hopes the Frost Institute will catalyze even more research that spans across disciplines to find new solutions to a host of research questions. 

“People often refer to the problem of silos, where traditional departments like chemistry, physics, and medicine are insular, when in fact there could be a lot of synergism,” Yeager said. “The idea of the Frost Institute is that it will become a driver of this synergy and provide the opportunity to align scientists and clinicians pursuing the same areas to work together. So, it will integrate all the expertise to solve unmet clinical needs and environmental problems.”

Science on Display 

Yeager, however, does not want to attract just faculty members. The building was specifically designed to engage the University and larger community. With floor-to-ceiling windows and a massive screen hanging in the lobby, passersby will be able to see video feeds of ongoing research inside the shared Molecular Electron Microscopy Center. The state-of-the-art lab will eventually have five specialized leading-edge microscopes enabling visualization from atoms to cells, which would be available for anyone at the University to utilize. In addition, Yeager hopes to attract academic and industry scientists throughout the United States, and with the geographic location of Miami, scientists from Central and South America would be encouraged to take advantage of the expertise and infrastructure in the Frost Institute.

“It’s very exciting for molecular scientists to have this building, but it was part of the design to put it at the crossroads of student traffic on campus. Because while walking through the building, students and faculty can see what’s going on in the lab,” said Leonidas Bachas, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and a biological and analytical chemist who served as the institute’s interim director. “You can’t miss it, and I hope students will also get excited about what’s happening inside.”

University leaders also expect faculty members from other institutions and leaders from private industry to collaborate on lifesaving or other useful innovations that can be shared with the world. Pratim Biswas, dean of the College of Engineering and a professor of chemical, environmental, and materials engineering, who is moving his aerosol and air quality lab into the building, said his collaborators across the U.S. are already interested in visiting the institute.

“There’s nothing south of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee that has this type of equipment for molecular science,” Biswas said. “It is a state-of-the-art facility built to do some unique research. And it will become the pride of the University, so that researchers will come to us.”

The laboratories have an open design to encourage communication and collaboration between researchers, who will share space adjacent to each other. On each floor, there are communal conference rooms and huddle rooms, where students and researchers can write on white boards and discuss experiments, said Jessica Brumley, vice president of facilities operations and planning at the University.

“This is a new way of building research facilities, so that the flow of ideas is not impeded, and researchers can move easily from one bench to another,” Bachas noted.

Innovative Occupants

Currently, the first three floors are ready for occupancy. Yeager will recruit additional faculty members as the fourth and fifth floors are completed in early 2024. The sixth floor houses the building’s mechanical systems. Yeager is confident that the building’s open design and state-of-the-art technology will enable the recruitment of a diverse and elite group of scientists exploring challenging avenues of impactful research. Brumley is pleased that the facility is on track for Gold LEED certification, which means it was built sustainably, and in a way to minimize its carbon footprint on the environment.

The first floor features a grand 24-foot ceiling that reaches the top of the second floor, an open seminar room with a display laboratory, and a large great hall. In the shared Molecular Electron Microscopy Center, researchers will be able to examine the atomic structure of hard materials such as metal alloys for biomedical devices or energy-storage solutions. Several of the instruments will apply the technique of cryoEM, in which soft beam-sensitive biological samples such as proteins and molecular complexes are flash-frozen and studied in a state close to that of the cytoplasm. Computational analysis of the images provides deeper insight into human physiology, relevant for drug discovery. 

The second floor will house Yeager’s lab and other scientists working on molecular design and the chemistry of therapeutic targets. He has applied the technique of cryoEM for more than three decades, which inspired his groundbreaking research on gap junction channels. These connect the cytoplasm of adjacent cells through molecular conduits, allowing metabolic cooperation and signaling between cells in all tissues. Such channels are particularly important in the heart, where they link every cell to maintain the normal heartbeat and coordinate muscle contraction. By analyzing the channels under conditions of tissue injury (such as acidic pH and elevated calcium concentration), Yeager was able to reveal the structural changes of these channels during a heart attack, which is relevant for understanding cardiac arrhythmias and sudden cardiac death. Yeager has also used cryoEM to study how viruses enter host cells, replicate, and assemble infectious particles, exemplified by his breakthrough research on the assembly, structure, and maturation of HIV-1, the virus that causes AIDS. 

Mark Yeager stands in front of the new Frost Institute for Chemistry and Molecular Science on the Coral Gables Campus.
Mark Yeager stands in front of the new Frost Institute for Chemistry and Molecular Science on the Coral Gables Campus.

The third floor will be devoted to aerosol sciences, which typically examines the formation, transportation, and synthesis of particles from their molecular constituents. Today, the field is considered part of nanotechnology, a new and growing branch of chemistry where scientists try to manipulate individual atoms and molecules. Aerosol science also has many applications to create new medical therapeutics, craft innovative energy and environmental technologies, and create novel materials. Joining Biswas on the third floor is Yang Wang, an assistant professor of chemical, environmental, and materials engineering, who became a faculty member this fall. Professor Chang-Yu Wu will move his lab from the University of Florida early next year. Both Wang and Wu have collaborated with Biswas on research grants in the past, and are known experts in aerosol science and technology.

“This is a very welcome addition to campus that will allow us to garner more research grants and hopefully to translate our technology to the market,” Biswas said. “And on the third floor, there will be significant activity right away because our faculty have several research grants that they will immediately start work on in this new space. Many of the current projects also have industrial collaborators who will partner with us in the research.” 

Now, after more than two years of construction, University leaders are eager to see the Frost Institute become a breeding ground for innovation. 

“Our hope is that 10 years from now we’ll be looking back and saying this major drug was discovered here because we had the right people, technology, and the right collaborative attitude,” Bachas said. “Hopefully, the Frost Institute will become a catalyst for major discovery that happened on our campus, and that can somehow be helpful to the world.”