August 2023 MMLI Spotlights

MMLI Faculty Spotlight: Let’s meet Huimin Zhao!

Huimin Zhao

Dr. Huimin Zhao is the Director of the MMLI. 
He is the Steven L. Miller chair of chemical and biomolecular engineering, and professor of chemistry, biochemistry, biophysics, and bioengineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), director of NSF AI Institute for Molecule Synthesis(, and Editor in Chief of ACS Synthetic Biology. He received his B.S. degree in Biology from the University of Science and Technology of China in 1992 and his Ph.D. degree in Chemistry from the California Institute of Technology in 1998 under the guidance of Nobel Laureate Dr. Frances Arnold. Prior to joining UIUC in 2000, he was a project leader at the Industrial Biotechnology Laboratory of the Dow Chemical Company. He was promoted to full professor in 2008. Dr. Zhao has authored and co-authored over420 research articles and over 30 issued and pending patent applications with several being licensed by industry. In addition, he has given plenary, keynote, or invited lectures in over 460 international meetings, universities, industries, and research institutes. Dr. Zhao received numerous research and teaching awards and honors such as AI ChE FP&B Division Award, ECI Enzyme Engineering Award, ACS Marvin Johnson Award, and SIMB Charles Thom Award. His primary research interests are in the development and applications of synthetic biology, machine learning, and laboratory automation tools to address society’s most daunting challenges in health, energy, and sustainability.

MMLI Trainee Spotlight: Let’s meet James Planey!

James Planey is a postdoctoral scholar and the curriculum design lead for Thrust 5. He joined MMLI this May (2023) after defending his thesis in the College of Education. James is an alum of the Embodied and Immersive Technologies Lab (EmIT) run by Robb Lindgren at the college. His thesis work focused on how students utilized an immersive VR drawing program he designed to explore science explanations of spatially complex content. I’ve also worked on the design of AR a mixed reality learning experiences across multiple contexts in chemical, physical,
and life sciences.

What was your background before MMLI?

Prior to coming back to graduate school in 2017 I was a technology
integration coach and biology instructor at Urbana High School. I got my teaching
certificate and science education masters here on campus in 2012 and worked on a number of science curriculum design projects before and after returning to start my PhD.

What drew you to MMLI?

MMLI found me honestly! I had already known a bit about the work situated
around the digital molecule maker, but not the larger research initiatives of the
project. I found out about the postdoc opportunity with thrust 5 via word of mouth,
and once I started getting the bigger picture of the structure and goals I got really excited for the diverse ways we could get learners and the public in general

How do you like to spend your free time?

My family and I enjoy walks around Meadowbrook Park and taking care of our
small flock of chickens. When I have time, I’m still a pretty avid PC gamer with a
soft spot for simulations and open-world games.

Fun fact (or extremely average fact) about yourself you would like to share:

Before I went back to school for my PhD I was taking a few flying lessons at Willard Airport and accidentally photobombed an astronomer’s shot of a 2014 partial solar eclipse that got featured by NASA: